This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: WASHINGTON - When two freight trains collided in southeast Missouri last month, the crash injured seven people, collapsed part of a highway overpass used by 500 cars a day, and caused $11 million in damages. (See: KSDK report with video)
That train collision near Chaffee, Mo., also spurred a federal safety investigation and was one of the topics of a U.S. Senate hearing on Wednesday into rail safety issues.
Missouri ranks as the fourth most "rail-intensive" state, with 4,000 miles of main-line track in the state. Last year, those railroads carried 428 million tons of freight through Missouri - the equivalent of 11 million fully loaded trucks.
"With such a massive amount of rail traffic, the potential for danger is around every corner and in every rail yard," said engineer Michelle Teel, the Missouri Transportation Department's director of multimodal operations, in her testimony.
Teel told the Senate panel that Missouri is one of a handful of states with strict railroad safety regulations, and the state had four railroad safety inspectors who enforce both state and federal rail regulations. But, noting the extent of the state's rail lines, Teel said "this is an immense amount of territory for four inspectors to cover," so coordination is essential with federal rail inspectors.
In the case of the May 25 rail collision near Chaffee, Teel said the accident "speaks to the importance of railroad safety and the need to systematically and constantly work to improve it."
A week after that incident, a barge carrying a large crane broke loose from a bridge project, took out power lines as it floated downriver "and became wedged under and against Norfolk Southern's Missouri River crossing in St. Louis," Teel said. The railroad's Midwestern train operations were halted during the three days it took to remove the crane.
Senators cite need for rail safety improvements
"While the number of railroad incidents is on the decline, it is all too clear that there is still work to be done to improve rail safety," said U.S. Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va, who chairs the Commerce Committee, in a statement.
While senators were told that the nation's overall record on train safety has improved over the last decade, lawmakers saw the need for further initiatives to improve railroad safety as freight traffic continues to increase.
"The amount of time, resources and money that the federal government and the private rail line operators put into increasing safety is important," said U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the ranking Republican on the surface transportation subcommittee.
Blunt cited rail-crossing safety as one of the areas to improve - a suggestion that Teel later backed up with data from Missouri.
"I think rail traffic is going to get more and more important as time goes on," said Blunt, telling reporters Wednesday that, with the 2015 expansion of the Panama Canal and the expected increase in U.S. agricultural exports, both river navigation and rail freight will be growing in Missouri.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who chairs the subcommittee, cited recent rail accidents in Connecticut in calling for improvements in rail safety equipment. He and other lawmakers said safety would be improved by the installation of "positive train control" (PTC) communications systems that aim to prevent train accidents caused by human factors.
Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told the Senate panel that PTC systems "will be the technology backbone that promotes safety improvement through the reduction of human-factor-related incidents and should complement FRA’s other safety efforts." (FRA stands for Federal Railroad Administration.)
The safety board's preliminary report on the Missouri collision indicated that "no PTC system is currently installed" at the location of the accident, an "interlocking" where Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight trains cross. A Burlington train was at the junction when a Union Pacific train struck the 12th rail car behind its locomotive.
"Preliminary data indicate that the BNSF train received a signal indication permitting it to proceed through the interlocking, while the UP train received a stop signal indication at the interlocking," said Hersman in her testimony.
FRA says railroads safer than ever
Joseph C. Szabo, who heads the Federal Railroad Administration, told senators that - despite the recent high-profile accidents in Missouri and elsewhere - "2012 was the safest year on record, continuing our year-over-year reductions in incidents" on the nation's rail lines.
In the last decade, he said, the total train accidents have declined by 43 percent; derailments have dropped by 41 percent; and highway-rail grade crossing accidents have declined by 34 percent. He said rail safety improvements have helped lower fatal injuries by 18 percent and total injuries by 14 percent over those ten years.
"This achievement is even more noteworthy because Amtrak ridership reached an all-time high, rail was the fastest-growing mode of public transit, and intermodal freight traffic surged toward a new record," said Szabo.
Even so, he said, the recent accidents "in Missouri, Connecticut, and Maryland demonstrate the varied risks to rail safety."
While Szabo painted a mostly rosy picture of rail safety, a preliminary report by the Government Accountability Office raised issues about the FRA's challenges in replacing its aging workforce of rail inspectors, in meeting the requirements of the federal Rail Safety Improvement Act, including the implementation of PTC systems.
The GAO indicated that "railroads may not be able to fully implement PTC by the 2015 deadline" set by federal law. "This is because of the many interrelated challenges caused by the complexity and breadth of PTC implementation," including the fact that some PTC components are still under development.
"We have identified several potential challenges affecting FRA's rail safety oversight," said Susan Fleming, who directs the GAO's physical infrastructure group. Among the "ongoing and emerging safety challenges" listed by the GAO were "addressing adverse weather conditions and their impact on railroad operations and equipment" and "educating the public on the potential hazards of rail-highway crossings."
While national statistics indicate that the number of rail-crossing injuries has declined, MODOT's Teel told senators that there were 192 "grade-crossing incidents" -- and 41 fatalities -- at Missouri's rail crossings between 2008 and 2012. That ranks Missouri fifth highest among states for rail-crossing injuries.
"Missouri has 3,800 public [rail] crossings scattered statewide," Teel said. "They require significant attention" to keep them safe.
Teel urged the senators to keep up federal funding to help improve the safety of such rail crossings - funding that provides about 80 percent of what MODOT spends to improve the crossings. (Missouri gets about $6 million a year in federal highway funds for crossing improvements, while the state itself spends about $1,2 million.)
"Railroads have never been safer, but there is still much to do," Teel said.