Federal lawmakers seek answers about rail safety plan following Amtrak accident

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In response to December’s deadly Amtrak train derailment, Representatives Sean Patrick Maloney (NY-18) and Denny Heck (WA-10) led the state’s delegation in demanding answers from Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao regarding the department’s adherence to train safety legislation passed in 2015. A provision of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act authored by Rep. Maloney requires passenger railroads to identify high-hazard curves on their tracks and submit an action plan to the Department of Transportation (DOT) to enhance safety at those locations.

“I spoke with Secretary Chao immediately following the train derailment in DuPont, and I intend to keep the conversation going with federal, state, and local authorities on what we can do to improve rail safety,” said Rep. Heck, who represents the district in which the crash occurred. “Implementing this provision of existing law is one way we can reduce the likelihood and severity of train accidents. Jim Hamre and Zach Willhoite were tireless advocates for passenger rail, and on their behalf we will continue to search for ways to make train travel safe and reliable.”

Section 11406 of the FAST Act requires each passenger railroad carrier to survey each of its systems in order to identify high-hazard curves and submit an action plan detailing steps the railroad will take to enhance safety at those locations. It is unclear whether or not DOT has enforced this portion of the law.

“We don’t have all the facts yet, but we do know that the train was going almost three times faster than it should have been around that curve – my bill was intended to prevent these kinds of accidents, but it only works if it’s being enforced,” said Rep. Maloney, a member of the Transportation Committee. “We need to get to the bottom of this – the only thing that’s certain right now is that we have to stop these crashes. People’s lives are on the line.”

Investigators have found that the Amtrak train that crashed in Washington on Dec. 18 was traveling 78 miles per hour in a 30 mile per hour zone near a curve in the tracks. Investigators are in the process of determining the proximate cause of this derailment, but the high rate of speed coupled with a high-hazard curve are likely major factors. Investigators also believe that positive train control would likely have prevented this accident had it been in operation on the track.

“The circumstances surrounding the Amtrak accident in Washington are eerily similar to the tragic and deadly 2015 derailment of an Amtrak Northeast Regional train in Pennsylvania, and dozens of accidents before it,” said Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Ranking Member Peter DeFazio. “Congress passed legislation to force intercity and commuter railroads to identify dangerous curves and enhance safety at these curves in order to prevent these types of accidents and save lives. I look forward to a response from the Department of Transportation on whether this legislation is being enforced and will continue to work together with my colleagues to enact any changes necessary to prevent this type of accident in the future.”

Representatives Maloney and Heck were joined on the letter by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (OR-4), Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee Ranking Member Michael Capuano (MA-7), and members of the Washington delegation.

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