At a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing today on the future of rail transportation and safety, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the Ranking Member of the committee, pushed officials from Amtrak and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to make safety a top priority.
“We need to stop the next DuPont from happening,” Cantwell said at the hearing.
To improve rail safety throughout the country, Cantwell emphasized the importance of implementing Positive Train Control (PTC) – a safety technology that according to the NTSB could have prevented the fatal Amtrak 501 derailment near DuPont, WA – and addressing freight rail congestion through infrastructure investment.
“Safety must remain a top priority,” Cantwell said. “We need to continue to make sure that we are having situational awareness of the challenges that come with participating in a busy transportation corridor. Obviously Positive Train Control… is a key component of that, and as we consider the number of freight trains coming through and the impacts on the daily lives, we need to make sure that we’ve learned the lessons from the DuPont accident and everything that comes with it.”
In her remarks, Cantwell highlighted the Pines Road crossing in Spokane Valley – which recently received federal funding to improve the intersection, a grant application Cantwell supported – as one example of the impacts of increasing rail congestion.
“56 freight and 2 passenger trains pass through [the Pines Road intersection], creating 3 hours of rail-related closures daily,” Cantwell said. “That means that the challenge of moving people and moving freight in our region… is becoming more and more challenging. Three hours every day when traffic is interrupted, three hours every day when accidents between cars and trains are more likely, and three hours a day when emergency vehicles are blocked from getting where they need to go.”
The number of freight trains traveling on Washington state rails is only expected to grow as businesses around the country continue to reach international markets through Washington state ports. In 2014, 121 million tons of freight were shipped by rail throughout the state. By 2035, that number is expected to more than double, to 260 million tons of freight. That increase will also impact crossings like Pines Road, which is expected to see as many as 114 trains pass through every day by 2035.
In her role on the Commerce Committee, Cantwell has been a consistent advocate for increasing accountability and investment in rail safety in the United States. In July of 2015, as the Senate considered the DRIVE Act, Senator Cantwell expressed concern that the bill would delay PTC implementation and roll back safety protections. In December of 2017, Cantwell joined her Senate colleagues from the Pacific Northwest to demand railroads be held accountable for PTC implementation. In January 2018, Cantwell led members of the Washington Congressional delegation in calling for a comprehensive update from the Federal Railroad Administration on the nationwide implementation of PTC. And in March 2018, after calling for a hearing in the wake of the DuPont derailment, Cantwell pressed Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson on rail safety and PTC implementation.