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Rick Shapiro
Rick Shapiro
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Easing of Positive Train Control Requirement Endangers Railroad Workers

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Years of effort to take much of the value out of a federal regulation requiring U.S. railroads to install life-saving technology on trains and along tracks paid off for the Association of American Railroads on May 10, 2012. The AAR represent large freight and passenger rail corporations, including Amtrak, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, CSX and Norfolk Southern. The group's victory — which is actually a terrible loss for the men and women who actually do the work of moving goods and people by rail — was getting the Federal Railroad Administration to agree to excuse the corporations from equipping thousands of miles of tracks with positive train control technology.

FRA defines PTC as "integrated command, control, communications, and information systems for controlling train movements with safety, security, precision, and efficiency." In plain language, positive train control can automatically or remote slow and stop trains at risk for colliding or derailing.

Rules adopted in 2008 had required railroads to install PTC on all trains and tracks beginning no later than 2015. Despite promising to abide by those regulations, AAR members have worked overtime to take the teeth out of PTC requirements, even prompting Republican members of Congress to sponsor legislation to delay the launch date for PTC.

Here is the gist of the regulatory change announced by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood:

Railroads will no longer have to conduct risk analyses to obtain approval to not install PTC or take other costly risk mitigation measures on an estimated 10,000 miles of track that will not carry passenger trains or poison inhalation hazard (PIH) commodities after December 2015. Railroads are expected to save approximately $335 million over the first five years, and up to $775 million over 20 years, by utilizing safety measures other than PTC, where appropriate.

Saving money is paramount for railroads even though corporations are reaping all-time record quarterly and annual profits. The same day FRA updated its PTC regulation by making it less protective of train crew members, Norfolk Southern informed investors that it took in more than $11 billion in revenues during the 2011 fiscal year. NS had earlier posted a net profit of $1.9 billion for that 12-month period.

Projected cost savings for waiving PTC installation requirements for tracks that only engineers, conductors, carmen, trackmen and other rail employees will travel are $775 milion for the entire freight railroad industry over 20 years. In other words, about 40 percent of one year's worth of net income for the third-largest Class I railroad would cover all the expense of PTC for every mile of track that will now go without the lifesaving technology.

And make no mistake, positive train control can and will save lives. The National Transportation Safety Board reported in April 2012 that a fatal collision involving a BNSF train could have been prevented by PTC.

My railroad injury and wrongful death attorney colleagues and I have written often about rail corporatios valuing profits over the safety and lives of employees. The equation is simple for railroad executives and harmful for workers: Lobbying to reduce regulation plus going to court to fight claims for on-the-job injuries and deaths plus paying out on FELA and other claims equals less than paying for accident prevention and workplace protection. A particularly egregious example of this has played out for decades in Syracuse, New York (NY), where CSX has refused to pay to change the height of a bridge over a major highway while also settling lawsuit after lawsuit related to crashes caused by the low-clearance overpass.

That math undoubtedly works for railroads, but it's a killer for railroaders.

EJL

About the Editors: The Shapiro, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.