As a state representative for the 28th District, I’ve spent quite a bit of time studying and learning about rail safety. It’s a subject I take seriously. I live in the town of Steilacoom, where trains are a way of life. In fact, the 28th District Puget Sound coastline is defined by the rail line. And, it’s not just about moving freight. Amtrak will soon be transporting passengers at a very high speed through Lakewood and DuPont. Rail safety is a big deal for our communities.
In 2014, more than 119 million tons of freight traveled by rail over more than 3,000 miles of rail tracks across the state. This activity supports Washington businesses across a variety of important industries, from lumber to agriculture to oil. Freight rail is also directly responsible for nearly 4,000 jobs and supports tens of thousands more throughout the state.
The good news is the rail business is thriving in Washington. However, continuing to find ways to improve safety needs to remain a priority. Just this week, state regulators approved $50,000 in funding for safety upgrades at Tacoma’s McCarver Street rail crossing, protecting our community.
Railroads have also prioritized important infrastructure and safety investments over the last 20 years. Building on these improvements is key to our state’s economic future. State and federal officials need to work together to preserve the existing balanced regulatory environment that has enabled the freight rail to develop into the world’s safest rail network.
According to Washington State Department of Transportation, travel by train is 23 times safer than travel by car. This is true for freight as well: A 2016 safety study conducted by OneRail found the accident rate for freight rail is far lower than transportation by freight trucks, largely due to freight rail’s focus on investing in its infrastructure.
This success did not happen overnight. Heavy regulation throughout much of the 20th century nearly brought the rail industry to the point of extinction. When profits decreased, railroads could not sustain their networks — leading them to fall into disrepair. Deregulation in the 1980s with the federal Staggers Act saved the industry and highlighted how balanced regulations promote rail infrastructure investment and safety.
Current proposals such as forced access, requiring railroads to share their networks at government set prices, threaten the industry’s ability to maintain its infrastructure once again. Under these policies, railroads would be unable to build on the $635 billion in private dollars that they have invested in infrastructure since the passage of Staggers.
These investments have played an integral role in improving rail safety. Since 2000, train accidents have fallen by 44 percent. Improvements include; stricter regulations on tanker cars, lower speed limits and the development and installation of new braking technology called Positive Train Control (PTC), making an already-safe system even safer.
PTC technology monitors train speeds and locations with GPS signals and digital tracking. Once operational, PTC will detect any problems and can apply the brakes in the unlikely event that a conductor cannot, helping eradicate accidents caused by human error. PTC remains a priority for freight railroads, which have spent nearly $8 billion to design and install the technology across the nation.
As railroads continue to implement PTC and other safety initiatives across the country, lawmakers at the national and state level must keep in mind smart regulations are integral in enabling the rail industry to make these investments in infrastructure and technology.
Dick Muri represents the people of the 28th District in the Washington State House of Representatives.