Pena undeterred on high-speed trains Accident seen as safety reminder

September 24, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena told a gathering of railroad executives, union leaders and government regulators yesterday that Wednesday's train wreck should not become a roadblock in efforts to bring high-speed train travel to the United States.

While pointing out that passenger trains remain one of the safest modes of transportation, Mr. Pena said Wednesday's crash in Saraland, Ala., that killed more than 40 people was a "very sad moment" in railroad history.

But he said it should serve as a reminder that safety must be of paramount concern if the United States is to enter into high-speed rail transportation.

"Railroads are clearly going to play a larger role in the future in transporting people and goods in this country, Mr. Pena said. "When we have a crash like the one we experienced yesterday we should seize the moment, learn from it, and make rail travel even safer in the future.".

The Clinton administration has asked Congress to approve a five-year, $1.3 billion plan to develop high-speed train technology in the United States. Amtrak is also in the midst of an $800 million upgrade of the Northeast corridor that by 1997 could bring trains running 150 mph or faster between Washington and Boston.

Mr. Pena spoke to a gathering sponsored by the Federal Railroad Administration to celebrate 100 years of rail safety. Even organizers admitted that the event, planned months in advance, seemed sadly ironic under the circumstances.

"The tragedy of yesterday brought back sad memories of the accident in Chase, Md.," said William E. Loftus, president of the American Short Line Railroad Association, referring to the 1987 crash that killed 16 people.

"As everyone here knows, the events yesterday are just the beginning of what will be a long, perhaps at times acrimonious, review of what happened."

Gilbert E. Carmichael, a former FRA administrator, said the crash demonstrates that the most pressing safety problem with trains is not the condition of the tracks or bridges but the hazards posed by railroad crossings.

Investigators in Alabama are looking closely at the possibility that a barge collided with the railroad trestle just before the train arrived. Mr. Carmichael said conflict between trains and other traffic -- whether by water or on land -- continues to be a problem for the industry.

Last year, there were three rail passenger fatalities with none involving Amtrak. But there were 575 people killed in the 4,900 railroad accidents involving highway-rail crossings.

One possible solution, rail experts said, might be to mandate better lighting on railroad bridges so that they will be more visible to boats. Another alternative might be to install sensors along the tracks to warn trains when rails ahead fall out of alignment.

FRA Administrator Jolene M. Molitoris said federal investigators have so far found nothing to fault the safety performance of either Amtrak or CSX Transportation, Inc., which owns the rail line on which the Sunset Limited was traveling.

"It's easy when there's an accident for people to jump to conclusions," Ms. Molitoris said. "If people see the results of this accident and conclude that rail travel is unsafe, then we aren't doing our job."

Yesterday's conference commemorated the 1893 law that standardized train braking systems and mandated automatic couplers and handholds, significantly reducing rail fatalities.

At the time, railroading was considered the nation's second most dangerous occupation, exceeded only by coal mining.

Between 1883 and 1892, 5,623 people were killed and 20,445 were injured on U.S. railroads. In 1890, a railroad brakeman was given a 20 percent chance of dying from natural causes.

Last year, rail advocates pointed out, was the safest ever for the railroad industry.

A 1991 National Safety Council study estimated that there were .03 passenger deaths for every 100 million miles traveled. Passenger cars were judged to have a fatality rate about 18 times higher.

Before yesterday's conference began at Union Station, organizers placed a 5-foot wreath with red and white carnations alongside the speaker's podium. A moment of silence was later invoked to honor those who died in the accident.

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