Blumenthal: Extra funds for more track inspections are a priority

 U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chuck Schumer will ask for millions to add more manpower for the Federal Railroad Administration to vet he proper installation and operation of automatic braking systems on commuter railroads and more track inspections nationwide, they said in announcement Sunday.

The boosted funding is needed to enable the agency to inspect a greater portion of the nation’s railroads first hand and lessening its reliance on audits and reports, Blumenthal said in a statement.

“Railroad safety enforcement is anemic – starved of adequate resources and power. Funding to enforce federal rail safety standards, now seemingly an afterthought, must be made a priority,” Blumenthal said. “The FRA should match its rhetoric with money – and seek more authority to order safety upgrades atrailroads across the country. Given the recent accidents, riders need and deserve a watchdog with both bite and bark.”

The derailment of an early morning commuter train at a sharp curve on the Harlem Line last Sunday that killed four passengers and injured 63 resulted last week in the FRA announcing  Operation Deep Dive, a two month probe into Metro-North’s safety procedures, including compliance with an emergency order issued requiring signal systems be revamped on “critical curves”, swing bridges, and other speed restricted locations to stop trains when they exceed established speed limits.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s initial investigation has indicated the train was running at 82 mph entering a curve where the speed limit was 30 mph.

“Safety is our top priority, and this in-depth investigation will help ensure that Metro-North is doing everything possible to improve its safety record,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Together with our other recent efforts, Operation Deep Dive will give travelers the peace of mind they deserve when traveling throughout the railroad’s region.”

Only a quarter of the 200 authorized safety positions called for in the 2009 Rail Safety Improvement Act have been funded through appropriations, Blumenthal and Schumer learned this week during a briefing with FRA officials with the Connecticut and New York Congressional delegations.

Blumenthal said he as told that the agency faces difficulty meetings it’s required safety oversight because of the current level of funding and expects 30 percent of its rail inspectors to retire in the next five years.The funding would allow for the hiring of 45 additional inspectors to conduct a greater number of firsthand inspections and sending safety “strike teams” to check adherence to established safety protocols and track inspection regimens.

The FRA officials also said they will face difficulty expediting the necessary safety checks of the installation of required positive train control systems without hiring a workforce of specialized inspectors to

The FRA currently has 400 federal safety inspectors who operate out of eight regional offices, and conducts oversight and inspections in conjunction with railroads who are also required to submit periodic information on safety compliance and track inspection to the agency.