WASHINGTON – House and Senate negotiators reached a deal Tuesday on a major railroad safety reform bill that will require new technology to prevent crashes and limit hours engineers can work.
The deal, expected to be brought to a vote in the House on Wednesday, follows a collision between a commuter train and a freight train that killed 25 people in Los Angeles on Sept. 12.
Those fatalities — the nation's worst in a train crash since 1993 — spurred lawmakers to reach consensus as Congress prepares to recess at the end of this week. Lawmakers hope to move the package through the Senate before then.
The package also wraps in legislation authorizing billions for Amtrak.
The legislation would enact the first major updates to rail safety rules since passage of the Federal Railroad Safety Authorization Act of 1994.
That law expired in 1998 and the train oversight and safety agency, the Federal Railroad Administration, has been operating under the expired law ever since because Congress had not acted.
Among the provisions of the deal, according to congressional aides, is a requirement for the installation by 2015 of technology that can engage the brakes if a train misses a signal or gets off track. The so-called positive train control technology would be required on all rail lines that carry passengers and on freight lines that carry hazardous materials.
The technology has been a major point of contention between Congress and the railroads and Federal Railroad Administration. While insisting they support the technology, which is currently installed only on portions of the Northeast Corridor, the railroads and the railroad administration have opposed a congressionally mandated timeline.
At a briefing earlier Tuesday convened by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., FRA Administrator Joseph H. Boardman acknowledged that, "Positive train control would have prevented this collision." But he hedged when pressed on timelines for putting it in place.
Meanwhile, California's senators wanted a faster timeline than the one negotiators ultimately agreed to.
"No question it's good that there's a deal, and I hope that it can be passed before this Congress comes to a close. Yet, I'm very disappointed about the deadline," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Tuesday night. She said she was hoping positive train control would have been mandated on the highest-priority lines by 2012.
The deal would also cap the monthly hours train crews can work at 276. An outdated law that currently governs train crew hours allows them to work more than 400 hours a month, compared with 100 hours a month for commercial airline pilots.
The deal merges bills that had already separately passed the House and Senate.