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Congressman Denny Heck

Representing the 10th District of Washington

After Deadly Amtrak Derailment, Maloney, Heck and Transportation Committee Heads Lead Washington Delegation in Letter Asking DOT to Clarify Adherence to Federal Law

Jan 11, 2018
Press Release
Maloney’s Passenger Train Derailment Prevention Act, Included in 2015 Transportation Bill, Requires Passenger Railroads to Enhance Safety near High-Hazard Curves

WASHINGTON – In response to December’s tragic and deadly train derailment in Washington State, Representatives Sean Patrick Maloney (NY-18) and Denny Heck (WA-10) led the Washington state delegation in demanding answers from Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao regarding the Department’s adherence to train safety legislation passed in 2015. A provision of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act authored by Rep. Maloney requires passenger railroads to identify high-hazard curves on their tracks and submit an action plan to the Department of Transportation (DOT) to enhance safety at those locations.

“We don’t have all the facts yet, but we do know that the train was going almost three times faster than it should have been around that curve – my bill was intended to prevent these kinds of accidents, but it only works if it’s being enforced,” said Rep. Maloney, a member of the Transportation Committee. “We need to get to the bottom of this – the only thing that’s certain right now is that we have to stop these crashes. People’s lives are on the line.”

“The circumstances surrounding the Amtrak accident in Washington are eerily similar to the tragic and deadly 2015 derailment of an Amtrak Northeast Regional train in Pennsylvania, and dozens of accidents before it,” said Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Ranking Member Peter DeFazio. “Congress passed legislation to force intercity and commuter railroads to identify dangerous curves and enhance safety at these curves in order to prevent these types of accidents and save lives. I look forward to a response from the Department of Transportation on whether this legislation is being enforced and will continue to work together with my colleagues to enact any changes necessary to prevent this type of accident in the future.”

“The December derailment of an Amtrak passenger train in Washington State underscores the urgent need to ensure that railroad carriers are identifying locations requiring speed reductions and developing safety plans for those sections, as mandated by the FAST Act,” stated Rep. Mike Capuano, Ranking Member of the Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee. “While the investigation into that derailment is ongoing, it is clear that speed played a role. We are urging Secretary Chao to review railroad compliance with federal transportation law.”

“I spoke with Secretary Chao immediately following the train derailment in DuPont, and I intend to keep the conversation going with federal, state, and local authorities on what we can do to improve rail safety,” said Rep. Heck, who represents the district in which the crash occured. “Implementing this provision of existing law is one way we can reduce the likelihood and severity of train accidents. Jim Hamre and Zach Willhoite were tireless advocates for passenger rail, and on their behalf we will continue to search for ways to make train travel safe and reliable.”

Investigators have found that the Amtrak train that crashed in Washington on December 18th was traveling 78 miles per hour in a 30 mile per hour zone near a curve in the tracks. Investigators are in the process of determining the proximate cause of this derailment, but the high rate of speed coupled with a high-hazard curve are likely major factors. Investigators also believe that positive train control would likely have prevented this accident had it been in operation on the track.

Section 11406 of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, passed in 2015, requires each passenger railroad carrier to survey each of its systems in order to identify high-hazard curves (curves requiring a reduction of more than 20 miles per hour from the approach speed) and submit an action plan detailing steps the railroad will take to enhance safety at those locations. It is unclear whether or not DOT has enforced this portion of the law.

In March 2015, the House also passed Rep. Maloney’s Commuter Rail Passenger Safety Act, which would make all positive train control installations "priority projects" as part of the $35 billion Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing (RRIF) Program that currently provides loans and loan guarantees to railroads. Rep. Maloney is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Representatives Maloney and Heck were joined on the letter by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (OR-4), Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee Ranking Member Michael Capuano (MA-7), and members of the Washington delegation.  

The full text of the letter is below and an original copy is available here.

Dear Secretary Chao:

In the wake of the tragic Amtrak derailment in Washington, we write to you regarding the Department of Transportation’s legal responsibility to ensure steps are taken to prevent these types of tragedies in the future. Specifically, we seek answers from the Department of Transportation as to the status of passenger railroad speed limit action plans required by the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015.

As you know, the Passenger Train Derailment Prevention Act of 2015 was included as Section 11406 of the FAST Act. This important provision required each railroad carrier providing intercity rail passenger transportation or commuter rail passenger transportation to survey its entire system and identify each curve, bridge, or tunnel requiring a reduction of more than 20 miles per hour from the approach speed and submit an action plan detailing steps the railroad will take to enhance safety at those locations. Those steps could include modification of existing ATC or other signal systems, increases in crew size, installation of signage at those locations, installation of alerters in cabs, and increases in crew communication. The plan must contain milestones and target dates for implementing those steps.

                While the root causes of this most recent derailment are still being investigated, it is clear that this accident involved a train travelling at high speed entering into a high-hazard curve. Compliance with Section 11406 was intended to reduce the likelihood of these tragic events and, as such, we seek answers from the Department of Transportation as to the status of these action plans. Specifically, we would like to know if Amtrak has submitted any speed limit action plans to the DOT for review and approval, as required by law, and whether DOT reviewed and approved such plans. We also request copies of the plans.

Thank you for your attention to this letter, and we look forward to your prompt response.

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