WASHINGTON -- Train collisions with motor vehicles at grade crossings take a far greater toll than high-profile train accidents such as the recent Silver Spring crash that killed 11 people, Congress was told yesterday.
Eight people have died in highway rail grade crossing accidents "in the last 48 hours," said Jean Molitoris, head of the Federal Railroad Administration.
Testifying before a House subcommittee looking into rail safety, Ms. Molitoris said that "every 90 minutes, there is a collision" at a rail crossing. Grade crossing accidents killed 596 people last year -- half of all railroad fatalities -- while another 503 deaths involved trespassers on rail tracks.
Together they represent more than 90 percent of all railroad deaths last year. Ms. Molitoris spent much of yesterday's session -- the continuation of a five-hour hearing on Tuesday -- listening to sharp criticism that her agency is slow to act to improve railroad safety.
"I see you as a very well intentioned, well meaning person trying to do a job in an industry and an agency whose rules are encrusted with age, tied up by an industry that does not want to be regulated, that resists regulation, that resists efforts to improve its act every step of the way, and someone's got to break that bottleneck," Rep. James L. Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, told her. "And that's got to be you."
"I don't know where to go from here," said New York Rep. Susan Molinari, the Republican subcommittee chairwoman, complaining that the FRA has taken too long to move on safety regulations mandated by Congress.
James Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, repeated earlier complaints that for many years the railroad administration has failed to act on numerous recommendations for safety improvements, adopting only 74 percent of the recommendations.
"There is not as much emphasis on safety" from railroads and the FRA as there is in the aviation industry, he said.
Ms. Molitoris countered that her agency has a "wholehearted commitment to railroad safety," and "has played a part in achieving rail safety gains."
The FRA response to safety board recommendations has improved markedly in the three years that she has headed the agency, she said.
The two-day hearing was the first in a series that is exploring a wide range of rail safety issues and accidents, including the Feb. 16 collision in Silver Spring between an Amtrak train and a MARC commuter train that left 11 people dead. The next hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.
"The past few months have been the worst in rail safety in decades," said Ms. Molinari. Mr. Hall said that since Jan. 1, the safety board has launched investigations of 17 rail accidents that caused 22 deaths, 230 injuries and more than $64 million in damage.
In the same period, an FRA spokesman said later, 36 people have died in grade crossing accidents and another 33 trespassers on rail tracks have been killed.
The railroad administration has made a concerted effort in the past few years to prevent grade crossing deaths by having crossings closed or marked more clearly for drivers to see. She said 18,000 crossings have been closed but that nearly 315,000 remain.
Pub Date: 3/07/96