Washington – Sen. Richard Blumenthal, in his first time holding a gavel as the chairman of a Senate Commerce subcommittee, chided the head of the Federal Railroad Administration for its slow pace in issuing safety regulations.
“Four people might be alive today if those (regulations) had been implemented,” Blumenthal told FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo in a testy exchange.
Blumenthal, chairing a hearing on rail safety Thursday, was referring to a Metro-North crash near the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx. The December accident killed four people and injured more than 70 others.
Blumenthal asked Szabo why a number of safety measures proposed by the National Transportation Safety Board and others mandated by Congress years ago have not been implemented.
“My view is we’re behind, and we’ve been languishing,” Blumenthal said.
Szabo said his agency was moving as quickly as possible. “If you do things too fast, you run the risk of committing errors.” He told Blumenthal, “It’s a matter of putting things into a regulatory pipeline.”
Blumenthal has focused on rail safety since a Metro-North train derailed near Bridgeport last May. Ten days later, a railroad foreman was killed on the tracks near the West Haven station by an oncoming train. Then there was the failure of a Consolidated Edison feeder cable that stopped service on the New Haven line for 12 days in September — and the crash in the Bronx.
NTSB Vice Chairman Christopher Hart said the agency has combined the four open investigations of Metro-North and will release a final report in November that details the official causes of the accidents.
Szabo said the results of the FRA’s investigations into Metro-North, dubbed “Operation Deep Dive,” will be released March 17.
Blumenthal also pushed back against comments by Ed Hamberger, president of the Association of American Railroads, who said rail companies have voluntary rulebooks that are often tougher than federal regulations.
“You may be right about some railroads, but not all,” Blumenthal said. “Metro-North is not moving ahead with cameras.”
Last month, the NTSB recommended putting outward- and inward-looking cameras on all rail cars, a safety measure Blumenthal has championed.
The rail safety hearing also focused on a December collision in North Dakota between a freight train carrying crude oil and a train carrying grain that had derailed earlier. The collision created huge fireballs and left the oil train in flames.
Blumenthal was promoted last month to chairman of the Commerce subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security. On Thursday, there was some evidence of a lack of experience in chairing a congressional hearing – or a sign of enthusiasm to question witnesses.
After he and the senior Republican on the subcommittee, Roy Blunt of Missouri, made opening remarks, Blumenthal said he wanted to question Szabo. This ignored established congressional procedure that allows all witnesses to read their testimony before they are questioned.
“You don’t want to hear our opening statements?” a startled Szabo asked.
At that point, Blumenthal said all witnesses should go ahead and give their testimony.