IG: Gov't Investigating Only Fraction of Rail Accidents

The government is investigating less than 1 percent of accidents at railroad crossings and imposing few fines for defective safety equipment, the Transportation Department's inspector general said Thursday.

Of the 3,045 collisions at rail crossings last year, the Federal Railroad Administration investigated only nine.

One-fifth of the collisions were not reported immediately, as required, to the Homeland Security Department's National Response Center, the report said.

The accidents were reported later to regulators, but "by then it was too late to promptly decide whether or not to conduct an investigation," Kurt Hyde, assistant inspector general, said in the report.

Some 368 people were killed at crossings in 2004, 11 percent more than the year before. Crossing deaths had fallen 40 percent between 1994 and 2004.

The railroad agency chief, Joseph Boardman, said his agency has increased enforcement of reporting requirements concerning accidents.

In a response to the report, the agency agreed to investigate more accidents and impose more and stiffer fines for problems such as malfunctioning warning systems at crossings.

"We can never be satisfied that the problem has been solved," said Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., who requested the report. "Railroad crossing safety requires constant vigilance."

The FRA also identified 7,490 safety defects in automatic railroad crossing signals, but only recommended 347 violations from 2000 through 2004, the report said. It further noted that the agency often reduces fines after negotiating with the railroads.

In 2003, the agency collected $270,950 in fines from railroads for safety violations involving warning signals at crossings, the report said.

The report did acknowledge an effort by regulators to make crossings safer, noting that one railroad was recently fined $298,000 for a fatal accident that killed an elderly couple in Henrietta, N.Y., in 2004.