While Precise Cause of Recent Metro-North Tragedy is Still In Question, It’s Clear That Existence of Rail Grade Crossing Played Significant Role in Fatal Accident In Valhalla

Schumer, Blumenthal Unveiled New Legislation to Address Serious Dangers at Rail Grade Crossings in NY & CT  - Including A Significant Boost in Federal Grant Funds for Safety Upgrades, Like New Lights & Signals, at Accident-Prone Rail Crossings, and More Education & Safety Awareness Campaigns


Schumer, Blumenthal: In 2013, 2,096 Accidents at Grade Crossings Killed over 200 People Nationwide; Feds Should Provide More Funding for Improved Engineering, Education & Enforcement At Rail Crossings Across the Country


Today at Grand Central Terminal, U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) announced new legislation aimed at reducing highway-rail grade collisions following the catastrophic Metro-North collision at the Valhalla grade crossing that claimed the lives of six people and injured others. The legislation focuses on the “Three Es”, which are the factors that experts have identified as the most effective means of reducing such collisions: engineering, education and enforcement.

The Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Safety Act of 2015 would provide new resources to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), states and communities to make critical engineering and safety upgrades at rail crossings, like installing new lights and signals, particularly at accident-prone crossings. It would also provide grant funding to strengthen education and public awareness of grade crossing dangers, and for law enforcement to reduce violations of traffic laws at crossings. Between 2005 and 2014, there were 341 Railway Grade Crossing Incidents that resulted in 59 fatalities and 96 injuries in New York. In Connecticut during the same period, there have been 49 Railway Grade Crossings Incidents, resulting in 7 deaths and 32 injuries, according to the federal Department of Transportation.

Earlier this month, a Metro-North train traveling on the Harlem line struck an SUV on its tracks in Valhalla, NY, killing five passengers and the car driver and injuring many more—the deadliest accident in Metro-North’s history. In 2013, 2,096 accidents at grade crossings killed over 200 people nationwide.

“Many of New York’s hundreds of rail-grade crossings are truly accidents waiting to happen, and it’s critical that the federal government do more to make engineering upgrades at accident-prone crossings, boost public awareness of the dangers at such crossings, and improve reporting of dangerous problems at crossings,” said Senator Schumer. “The pain is still fresh from the recent fatal Metro-North crash in Valhalla, and Senator Blumenthal and I feel compelled to act; we must improve safety at rail crossings for the sake of our drivers and rail passengers. While the precise cause of the Metro-North crash in Valhalla is still under investigation, it’s crystal clear that the existence of the rail grade crossing played at least some role in the fatal, tragic accident, and this new legislation will focus on providing new resources to the Federal Railroad Administration, states and localities to help make much-needed improvements at many rail grade-crossings and help eliminate future collisions. Improved safety must rise from this dark tragedy.”

 “Without the decisive steps we urge, rail grade crossings will continue to be accidents waiting to happen -- in fact, accidents happening daily and repeatedly -- including at more than 600 sites in Connecticut,” said Senator Blumenthal. Every year, there are more than 2,000 such collisions nationally, causing over 230 deaths and nearly 1,000 injuries. Our proposal will bring rail grade crossings into the 21st century by implementing new technology, raising awareness, and providing resources. Too many innocent victims, drivers, train passengers, and railroad employees have died needlessly or suffered serious injuries because of inadequate warnings and a lack of accident avoidance technologies. While we still lack conclusions as to what caused the particularly horrific collision in Valhalla earlier this month, we do know there are common sense measures available immediately to improve safety at these crossings nationwide. Simply put, these deaths and injuries are preventable through better education, enforcement and engineering, and we have a moral obligation to act.”

“Education plays a crucial role in raising awareness among motorists and pedestrians about the potential dangers present at all highway-rail intersections and along train tracks,” said Operation Lifesaver, Inc. President Joyce Rose. “Our nationwide safety campaign urges everyone to “See Tracks? Think Train!”

According to ‘Operation Lifesaver,’ a national nonprofit organization dedicated to rail safety education, a person or vehicle is hit by a train every three hours. Ninety five percent of all fatalities on U.S. railroads are due to people trying to beat a train at a crossing or walking on railroad tracks. Schumer and Blumenthal today said that many of these deaths are preventable. Across the country, there are 140,000 miles of railroad track and 212,000 rail-highway grade crossings. Approximately half of public rail crossings are ‘active’ crossings, which have either protective gates or flashing lights to warn whether a train is coming. The other half of public rail crossings are ‘passive’ crossings, which only have a crossbuck sign at the crossing and drivers must slow down to look for an oncoming train. FRA safety data shows that nearly half of crossing collisions are at active crossings.


Specifically, the new legislation would:


·         Provide states and communities with more resources to eliminate collisions at grade crossings, while strengthening and relying on existing programs that have been underfunded and underutilized. 

·         Focus on the “Three E’s” that experts have identified as the best ways to address collisions:


o   ENGINEERING (installing improved lights, signals and signs at crossings and building bridges and tunnels to separate roadways from rail track):


§  Bolster funding for the Federal Highway Administration’s Railway-Highway Crossing program, which receives $220 million a year and provides states with funding for the “elimination of hazards of railway-highway crossings, including the separation or protection of grades at crossings, the reconstruction of existing railroad grade crossing structures, and the relocation of highways to eliminate grade crossings.”  The legislation would increase this amount by $50 million per year for four years.   


§  Revive the FRA’s Rail Line Relocation & Improvement Capital Grant program, which until 2009 had helped states and communities relocate a rail line for safety and other purposes.  The legislation would reauthorize the program and provide $25 million per year for four years and clarify that Congress would fund a rail line’s relocation only for safety purposes. 


o   EDUCATION, ENFORCEMENT, TARGETED ENGINEERING (increasing public awareness of grade crossing dangers and promoting police efforts to reduce violations of traffic laws at crossings):


§  Revive the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Grants Safety program, which was created by Congress in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 but never implemented.  This program was designed to provide grants to states for targeted engineering and technology solutions, “public awareness and education activities” and “targeted law enforcement” to minimize grade crossing collisions.  The legislation that created the program required some of the funding to be used “on an expedited basis” where “within the previous two years” there has been “a major loss of life or multiple serious bodily injuries.”  The legislation would reauthorize the program for four years and ensure it is properly funded, providing $100 million per year for four years.


§  Strengthen the federal government’s partnership with Operation Lifesaver, a non-profit organization that conducts public safety awareness and education campaigns and works with law enforcement officials to prevent fatalities and injuries at highway-rail grade crossings and along railroad rights-of-way.


·         Give the FRA additional manpower to focus on rail grade crossing collisions.


·         Require the FRA to analyze new technology the public can use to report dangers at grade crossings.


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