New York Legislators Promise Action In Wake Of Valhalla Crash

Since last week’s deadly railroad accident in Valhalla, Westchester Representatives Nita Lowey (NY-17) and Sean Patrick Maloney (NY-18), even New York Senator Charles Schumer, haven’t been shy about calling for reforming, enforcing, and upping safety regulations on Metro-North trains and New York State grate-crossings like the one where Ellen Brody’s SUV was trapped before being struck.

Lowey, a longtime advocate for increased transportation safety spending, has most recently proposed increased railroad safety education by working with Operation Lifesaver, Inc. (OLI), a railroad safety nonprofit, and has spoken with National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Llewellyn Sumwalt about investments in new rail safety technologies.

In a statement, Lowey said a train accident involving a motor vehicle or person occurs every three hours in the United States—a number she wants to decrease by ramping up federal spending on education campaigns. Lowey’s proposals come as railroads prepare to install positive train control systems (PTCS) by the end of 2015. These systems connect trains to a network of WiFi relay towers that can activate safety measures in situations where the crew has not. A federal report found that a PTCS would have prevented the 2013 Metro-North derailment in Spuyten Duyvil.

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But according to Evan Eisenhandler, a New York-based OLI coordinator, PTCS would not be a cure-all for train collisions. Eisenhandler said that, currently, PTCS are used for mostly train-to-train speed control, and wouldn’t necessarily prevent tragedies at rail grade-crossings like Valhalla.

“If a 15-ton freight train is going around a bend at 60 miles per hour, and a car stops on the tracks a half mile down, even if the train breaks it would take a mile for the train to stop,” said Eisenhandler. “It would not stop in time to prevent the crash and the sudden breaks could cause a train derailment.”

But other legislators are working on proposals that could complement those train safety systems, to help fill in the gaps.

Maloney said PTCS sensors could be installed at grade-crossings to warn approaching trains of anything on the tracks. In order to help fund any new construction, he has introduced the Rail Crossings Safety Improvement Act, which would renew funding for the Rail Line Relocation & Improvement Capital Grant Program. This move would allocate $100 million a year for the next four years to help states pay for “construction projects that improve the route or structure of a rail line.”

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“Safety is our first priority, and unfortunately incidents at rail crossings are all too common in New York,” said Maloney. “That is why it is crucial that we invest in positive train control and improve safety at grade crossings immediately.”

On the state level, New York State Senator David Carlucci has also introduced legislation targeting grade-crossings.

“I am introducing legislation that will give the New York State Department of Transportation the authority to collaborate with other organizations to determine which grade-crossing lanes are not safe, and how much it would cost to fix them,” wrote Carlucci on Facebook. “Although the numbers of accidents and fatalities at level-grade rail-crossings have fallen steadily on a national level, the number of accidents and fatalities in New York State has increased.”

Carlucci is right: In 2013, New York State ranked 26th in the nation for railroad crossing casualties, but, as the New York Times reported last week, the total number of New York crossing-grade incidents defies a national trend of fewer crossing accidents and deaths. The number of national crossing-grade accidents dropped from 3,085 (371 of which were fatal) in 2004 to 2,096 (288 fatal) in 2013, but in New York they rose from 26 in 2004 to 28 in 2013.

But the news isn’t all bad. According to Lowey, the creation of educational programs like the ones developed by OLI has contributed to an 83-percent drop in collisions between trains and motor vehicles since 1972. With a renewed focus on educational programs coupled with advancing safety technology, Lowey said she hopes all drivers will know what to do if they find themselves in a situation like the one that caused last week’s tragedy.

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“It’s just too bad it takes a terrible tragedy like this to focus on a common sense step,” Maloney said.

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