WASHINGTON -- With photos of victims of the deadly 2008 Southern California train crash behind her, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., on Thursday launched a counteroffensive to preserve a 2015 deadline for railroads to install collision avoidance systems on trains carrying passengers and toxic materials.
"Hundreds of thousands of commuters are at risk until this system is put into place," she said on the Senate floor.
But Feinstein could be facing a tough fight. A transportation bill headed for a House vote in a few weeks would extend by five years, until 2020, the deadline for installation of the high-tech braking system known as positive train control. An effort is expected to be made in the Senate to extend the deadline by three years.
The 2015 deadline was included in 2008 rail safety legislation at the urging of Feinstein and others after a Metrolink train collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train in the Los Angeles community of Chatsworth, killing 25 people and injuring more than 130. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that Metrolink's engineer was text messaging and failed to stop for a red signal.
A 2008 congressional report cited 52 rail accidents throughout the country in the previous decade in which the installation of a positive train control system "would likely have prevented the accident."
Metrolink is moving to complete installation of its $201 million system by mid-2013.
But Feinstein said extending the deadline could make deployment of the collision system more difficult. The 2015 deadline, she said, "creates a substantial incentive for industry to develop new and cost-effective technology that lowers the deployment cost for everyone, including Metrolink."
House Republicans included the new deadline in their $260 billion, five-year transportation bill after industry complaints that it is costly and difficult to install.
"What they are delaying is a device that saves lives," Feinstein said. "The case has not been made to do so." Congress, she said, should await a report from the Federal Railroad Commission on the issue "before scaling back or delaying a system that can prevent crashes."
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees railroads, said in a recent interview that financially strapped commuter rail operators in the Northeast have told him that the current deadline could force them to put off other critical safety measures. "There are significant technological issues associated with PTC that require additional time for consideration," he said.
Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Santa Fe Springs, hopes to bring the House floor an amendment that would keep the 2015 deadline. But a similar effort was soundly defeated in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on a bipartisan vote.