Friday, December 31, 2004

Look Both Ways -- And Then Pray

Walt Bogdanich at the New York Times continues his series on railroad hazards today with a story on malfunctioning signals at rail crossings.
A Times computer analysis of government records found that from 1999 through 2003, there were at least 400 grade-crossing accidents in which signals either did not activate or were alleged to have malfunctioned. At least 45 people were killed and 130 injured in those accidents, according to the records, although in most cases the role of signal malfunctions was unclear. Federal rules require that railroads maintain signals on tracks they own.
The problem is that either the railroads nor the Federal Railroad Administration which regulates the railroads have an effective or accurate method of reporting, tracking or confirming malfunctions in crossing mechanisms. Malfunctions reported by citizens are often not confirmed, even after accidents occur. And the railroads would rather blame accidents on driver error, than on their own malfunctioning equipment.

"My concern is that this is just the tip of the iceberg," said James E. Hall, a
former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "If we had that
type of record in aviation, it would be unacceptable."

Bogdonovitch's previous stories have talked about the failure of the Bush administration's Federal Railroad Commission to effectively enforce rail safety and the rail company's efforts to blame crossing accidents on driver error, rather than equipment problems. Other stories about the NY Times series here, here and here.