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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release February 20, 1996
                           PRESS BRIEFING
                   BY CHIEF OF STAFF LEON PANETTA,

The Briefing Room

3:34 P.M. EST

MR. PANETTA: The purpose today is to inform you all of the actions that are going to be taken by the Department of Transportation and, specifically, the Federal Railroad Administration in response to the tragedy that occurred here within the last few days.

On behalf of the President, I would like to offer condolences to the families and friends of those who were killed in the tragic accident that occurred last Friday night. The President was deeply saddened by the loss of three railroad employees and eight Job Corps participants -- young people who have been working hard to improve their lives.

In particular, the President would like to commend the firefighters, the police officers and the emergency workers who responded to the crash on Friday, and also to pay particular tribute to the residents of the area who came out of their homes to lend a helping hand. In their actions, I think we saw the spirit of community that is America at its best.

The President and the Department of Transportation have made transportation safety a very high priority for this administration. When our people travel around this country, whether by air, by highway, by rail, they have a right to be confident that every reasonable action has been taken to look out for their safety. In the wake of this tragedy and the recent commuter rail crash in New Jersey, the President has directed Secretary Pena and the Department of Transportation to take whatever additional steps are necessary to ensure passenger safety on our rail lines.

Accordingly, Secretary Pena is here today, along with the Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration Jolene Molitoris, to announce immediate actions that will be taken to more fully ensure the safety of passengers on commuter trains and railroads. And in line with the President's request, they will continue to examine these issues and take whatever further steps they believe are necessary to improve and ensure passenger safety in this country.

It's been pointed out that in 1994 and 1995, those years represented the safest years in both passenger and freight rail in the history of this country. And yet, when tragedies like what occurred here last Friday occur, they tell all of us that we can do better.

Secretary Pena.

SECRETARY PENA: Thank you very much, Leon.

Let me first introduce the people who are here with me today. To my far right is Mort Downey, the Deputy of the Department of Transportation. Next to Mort is Grace Crunican, the Deputy Administrator for the Federal Transit Administration. And to my left is Jolene Molitoris, who is the Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration. I want to thank them very much, because last Saturday, when I instructed both the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Transit Administration to begin to review this accident, they had been working basically 24 hours a day, Saturday, Sunday and today, to put us in a position to make today's announcement.

Many Americans have asked a number of us recently, are trains safe? The answer is, yes, they are. Can we make them safer? Yes, we can. I was, as the President and others, pained by the tragedies in Silver Spring and in Secaucus, New Jersey, on February 9th. In the last 11 days, 14 people have been killed in railroad accidents. We deeply mourn their losses, and appreciate the heroics of the rescue workers. While the National Transportation Safety Board has not reached a final conclusion, enough questions have been answered to take actions now. So the emergency actions that I am putting in place are as follows.

First, when a train passes a signal, engineers will be required to call out to another crew member if that signal is either red or yellow. This is similar to the kind of cockpit of a plane conversation where pilots and copilots interact constantly. My intent is to make sure that people are alert, and that the entire crew is taking responsibility for the safety of the train. A designated crew member elsewhere on the train by radio ought to help the engineer remember to abide with signal indications. This step will be required on trains that exceed 30 miles an hour and are not equipped with cab signals or automatic train control technology.

Secondly, after a train stops at a station to let people on and off, or is slowed to less than 10 miles an hour, henceforth the train shall proceed from that point at no faster than 30 miles an hour. This will allow the engineer time to stop before the next signal. Once the train reaches a signal and it is clear, the train can then resume full speed. Think of this as traveling on a yellow light every time you leave a station.

Again, while the National Transportation Safety Board has not made a final report on the Silver Spring accident, it has said that the train was going 63 miles per hour. Under today's emergency rule, the train will go 30 miles an hour and will prevent situations like Silver Spring from happening again.

Of course, this new speed will have some impacts on operations, but I believe that it is warranted to ensure safety. And again, this will be required on any train that is not equipped with cab signals or automatic train control technology.

Third, commuter and passenger rails will be required to ensure that emergency window exits actually open and operate as intended. Furthermore, emergency window exits must be clearly marked and visible both inside and outside the passenger coach. If there are any defective exits, they must be replaced -- period. The Federal Railroad Administration also will be taking steps to ensure that the railroads are in full compliance with this measure.

Beyond these emergency steps, I am requiring every commuter operating authority in this country to prepare a safety plan within 45 days. I want the Federal Railroad Administration to review with each railroad its current practices and how it can enhance the safety of these operations. In fact, later this week the Administrator will meet with labor, with management of railroads and with commuter officials.

I also want to deal with the realities of train operations as they have evolved over the last 30 years. Cab car operations have been safe, but there are inherent risks in this mode that put passengers up front without the protection of a lead locomotive. So we need to ask some very hard questions: Can we make cab car operations safer? And are they safe under all circumstances? What procedures do the commuter rails follow in adverse conditions such as bad weather? How are they scheduling their crews? What are they doing to protect highway rail grade crossings? These are the kinds of questions we ought to ask.

We are looking for common sense. We are looking to balance between doing things that are practical and giving passengers maximum protection. We intend to evaluate these plans when they are submitted to us. If there are issues that we are not satisfied with, we will take steps necessary to further enhance safety.

And, finally, I am calling for commuter railroads to submit a plan for adopting improved train control technologies. We want planning for safety and more efficient train operations to be an integral part of their planning strategy. We're going to discuss the plans on a case-by-case basis to identify opportunities where technologies could increase safety.

Some of you are aware of the fact that in 1994 we conducted a study for the Congress on the use of new train control technologies. The report said that on a national basis, a mandate for such systems could not be justified on the basis of safety alone. However, these systems have other benefits for passenger railroads which will lead to their widespread use. In partnership with some railroads, we have moved forward with pilot programs to perfect the technologies and to bring their costs down.

All of these actions are not meant to be heavy-handed mandates. They are a constructive use of our regulatory powers to make sure that every one meets a safe standard. In many cases, railroads already practice what we're asking of them. I want every railroad in this country to be practicing the highest standards for every trip, every hour, every day.

I also want to say something to the railroad workers of our country who serve the public every day -- serve with distinction and pride, getting millions of Americans to work and to school every day very, very safely. Today, I have taken steps that will make those rides even safer.

And finally, I want to say to the American public: Whether you take a train or fly, or drive, my highest priority is safety. One year ago, the airline industry, committed to a goal of zero accidents, airlines do not want a single airplane to crash. And the industry is dedicated to meeting that objective.

I say that we must dedicate ourselves to such an objective for our nation's rail system, also. Today, we have taken important steps to prevent future crashes.

That ends my statement at this point. We're happy to take your questions. I want to invite the Deputy and the Administrator and the Deputy Administrator to join with me in answering any particular technical questions.

Why don't we start over here.

Q There are some reports today that automatic train controls on the tracks in the area of the collision Friday night were removed by CSX in recent years. Do you know anything about that at all?

SECRETARY PENA: I believe you're referring to the removal of one of the signals. That --

Q That's not what I was referring to. I'm not sure what the technology is called that would have made a train stop that went through a signal that it was not --

SECRETARY PENA: That is -- we have not heard that. What we are aware of is that back in 1987, the Federal Transit Administration gave a grant to the state which went to CSX for the overall upgrade of its entire system from Baltimore all the way to West Virginia. And the idea was to enhance the technologies which was done to allow for even more traffic to be used on that trackage. Part of that contemplated the removal of one signal right after the Kensington Station -- which I think is what you're referring to -- but overall, the entire system was made safer with new technology. Now, if you're referring to something else, I must say I'm not aware of that issue.

Q On the track of the Virginia Railway Express -- in The Post this morning, the tracks the Virginia Railway Express operates on have these automatic track controls, that if a engineer were to go through a signal and not slow down and obey that signal, the train would be automatically stopped. There are no controls like that on the CSX tracks where the accident occurred, and there are reports that there were, and those controls were removed. I don't know what time period.

SECRETARY PENA: That is incorrect. There are a number of systems that do have that technology, and we support it. We understand that the particular system you're referring to -- the Virginia Railway Express -- had requested that that technology be removed and we have denied the request.

Q But I understand on the CSX tracks in Silver Spring --

MR. PANETTA: Again -- you've asked that question three times -- I am unaware of that technology. We'll double-check it, but you're the first person to raise that.

Q Are you able to quantify the costs of the things you've announced today, either in terms of dollars, in terms of additional personnel on trains, in terms of delays per passengers? And have you had any complaints from anybody who would be affected by that yet?

SECRETARY PENA: Because this is in the nature of an emergency order, we have not had time to fully quantify the costs. But there will be some delays; there's no question about that. And we believe that they are important for safety reasons. We are requesting the entities to submit to us plans within 45 days; that's going to require some thought And some action on their part. I believe it is required.

Q So none of these areas, either in dollars, either in time, either in personnel -- you can't put any kind of even estimates on any of that?

SECRETARY PENA: Today we cannot give you an estimate. Understand that we made a decision the move on this on Saturday. Today it is Tuesday, And we have not been able to quantify it.

However, let me say that the Department of Transportation has the authority to issue emergency regulations when the safety of the American people calls for it. That is precisely what we're doing. Now, having done that, we are going to have meetings this week with management, with labor and with all those city and county and quasi-governmental agencies to review with them our order and, where it is appropriate, adjustments can be made. But we're going to approach them personally, face to face, have these conversations and make sure that we meet high levels of safety.

Q Mr. Secretary, you've laid all of these rules out and you talk about the 45-day period of meeting. When are they actually going to take place? When will they be in effect?

SECRETARY PENA: The urgency order that was issued today takes effect immediately.

Q What will we see done?

SECRETARY PENA: You will see four things done. Number one, the rule that says that the train will proceed with caution when it comes into a station or slows down another 10 miles an hour applies immediately. The requirement to call signals out from the engineer to the conductor is also an immediate application. The requirement to check all the emergency exits to make sure that they are working is an immediate requirement. And the plan to submit -- the proposal to submit a plan to us within 45 days, of course, takes effect now. The 45 days are ticking. So those are four things that are basically in operation immediately.

Q Mr. Secretary, I note several of the things you've raised --

SECRETARY PENA: Yes. The order goes out today. They have 10 days to put it into place, but that's in effect immediately.

Q I note several of the things you've try to address and which you just ticked off -- what about a crackdown, if any, on exposed fuel tanks on old locomotives? How severe a problem -- came into play here? Is there anything being done about that?

SECRETARY PENA: The Federal Railroad Administration has been looking at a number of safety enhancements to the entire system. There is some rulemaking that is coming out in March on safety preparedness. Let me have the Railroad Administrator talk about that --

MS. MOLITORIS: On this particular item, we have a crash -- locomotive crash worthiness work that is going on, and that includes design, placement of fuel tanks, the thickness of those fuel tanks. And that work is in conjunction with operators and labor and industry.

Q Is it a requirement that will then make locomotive operators change their existing systems? How will it work?

MS. MOLITORIS: When it becomes a rulemaking and when it becomes a rule it will affect the design of new locomotives.

Q From now on or will they have to retro --

MS. MOLITORIS: From the time of the rulemaking.

Q Can I just ask you why, while you're up there, why the train that had the most fragile tanks was in the first position as opposed to the one that had the better tanks being in the second position? Why not put the one with the safest tanks in the lead?

MS. MOLITORIS: Well, the makeup of trains is another issue that's being addressed with regard to crashworthiness of locomotives and overall operational safety. I think the makeup of trains is an issue that is being discussed with this working group. And, as a matter of fact, if the accident had been a little different and it had crashed the second one, perhaps your question would be reversed -- why weren't they reversed.

Q I don't understand. If the safer tanks were on the second one, the tanks that are inboard, and on the first one you have tanks that are hanging out, essentially, that can be hit openly, I can't see where that would be reversed. You say it's an issue, but what kind of issue are you talking about? Who decides what train gets in what order, and who decides whether one's safer than the other?

MS. MOLITORIS: The makeup of trains now is dependent upon that operating agency. And the work that's going on with regard to overall safety of trains, locomotive crashworthiness, will bring to bear guidance on that issue when it is a rule.

SECRETARY PENA: Let me try to clarify this. Point number one. Obviously, older locomotives with the exposed fuel tanks are being replaced. The fact that Amtrak has a newer one with the new technology is evidence of that, and we are encouraging the various companies to do that. Point number two: The Administrator and the FRA have been engaged in a number of discussions with the industry about this matter and is preparing for a rule-making on this subject which will come out in the near future.

In response to your question, when that rule-making finally is published, then we'll have a more specific answer. But generally speaking, this is a matter that we have been discussing, that we have been reviewing with the industry, and it's a matter of deciding how best to proceed to find a way to replace those older locomotives in a way that is cost-beneficial.

I'll try and get all of your questions.

Q Ms. Crunican would know this. Obviously, New Jersey Transit would be affected because it did not have automatic controls. Can you tell us which other operating entities in the New York area, say the Long Island Railroad, would be affected by this and which would not be affected by this? I think Metro North does have such --

SECRETARY PENA: We actually have a list of -- do you want to handle that, Mort?

MR. DOWNEY: In the New York area, Metro North is fully covered by automatic controls, except the outlying Danbury and Waterbury branch; the Long Island Railroad is fully covered by automatic controls, except the outlying Montauk and Greenport branches. Jersey Transit, Newark division and Coastline are covered with cab signaling. Only the Hoboken division, the old Erie-Lackawanna lines would not be covered.

Q Can you give us an idea nationwide how many transit agencies then would be covered by this, just a number, some kind of an overall number in what we're talking about?

MR. DOWNEY: About 12 commuter agencies nationwide would have to change their process because they do not have full automatic train controls.

Q What cities chiefly? What cities are they?

MR. DOWNEY: And eight are not. Those that are affected -- SEPTA and Philadelphia in part. Mainly only their feeder lines. As we know, part of the MARC line, one of the VRE lines, but not the other. The Manassas line would be affected; Fredricksburg would not. Tri-Rail in Florida, several of the Chicago lines, the Southshore line in Indiana, the Peninsula Service in San Francisco, Metrolink in Los Angeles and the LOSAN Service in San Diego do not now have full automatic train control.

Q Under this order will they be required to adopt it?

MR. DOWNEY: No. They will be required to put new measures in place. If they are running cab forward, they'll be required to plan for the future as to what their signaling system should be.

Q With all this slowing down, what would a typical commuter trip be delayed by?

SECRETARY PENA: We can't give you an estimate today. It depends on each one of the systems and their operations. I think passengers understand that we have had two accidents in the last couple of weeks. They want to have a higher level of comfort that we're doing all that we can to increase the level of safety and that is what we are doing.

Now, as we go through this where adjustments have to be made because of unique circumstances or where other safety options can be proposed by the agency that meet our standard, we're going to be flexible in that regard. But the point is we've got to do more. That is the point.

Q Mr. Secretary, several of these seem specifically pointed to the Silver Spring accident. Are any of them specifically -- obviously, proceeding after a stop is geared to Silver Spring, not to Hoboken. Are any of these steps specifically geared to have prevented something like the Hoboken accident?

SECRETARY PENA: Well, if you're talking about hours of service and other human factors, the answer is, yes. One of the issues that we're going to require to be addressed in the safety plans that will be submitted to us within 45 days is the factor of crew management, such as duty cycles during evening hours. The other kinds of factors -- so you'll know -- we're asking people to focus on our passenger occupancy of cab cars, operating rule changes, precautions under adverse weather conditions, short-term technology enhancement, such as alerts. I talked about crew management and highway rail crossing factors. So we're going to ask them to address all of those factors and others, and submit to us within 45 days a very specific plan on how they're going to address each of those factors.

Q Mr. Secretary, you talk about cab car operations having been safe. In the instance of the Silver Spring crash, however, we saw that operation was not safe. We saw how fragile a passenger car can be when it's struck by a locomotive. Why has no emergency action been taken until the investigation is over or until we can determine why windows didn't open so people could get out? Why have you not said, no more cab car operations?

SECRETARY PENA: I'm glad you asked that question. First of all, as respect to the emergency windows and exits apparently not operating appropriately, we at least three years ago, in December of 1993, issued this document which is entitled "Recommended Emergency Preparedness Guidelines for Passenger Trains." And it speaks to a number of these issues, from testing protocols and emergency exits and notifying passengers etcetera. As a result of our guidelines to these agencies, the Congress then passed legislation basically saying this is terrific; now make it a formal rule.

So we are now in the process of doing a rulemaking, and in March, next month, we will issue a rulemaking and, in fact, codify what we already gave out as very good guidance to all of the agencies across the country. So I just want you to know -- we have been at this now for some time, ever since the Amtrak accident we had in Mobile and some others, that we have been raising the question of emergency preparedness and exits and working with passengers.

For example, Amtrak now has cards that are in the Amtrak trains giving passengers information about where the exits are, et cetera. So I want to commend them for responding I think in a very direct way to these directives.

Q I'd like to go back to the cab car operations. Why haven't you, for the time being, said no to that type of operation? Let's have a locomotive up front rather than a passenger car.

SECRETARY PENA: That is a very complicated and serious issue, but we're asking the agencies to send to us their plans on how they're going to enhance the safety of those cab cars. We have, in our statement today, made a statement that we find that there are some inherent risks in a cab car operation, although they've been operated very safely.

But in light of these two accidents, we have to raise the question. And so they're going to be responding to that concern and indicating what additional measures they're going to put in place to address that question that we have put squarely on the table with our directive today.

Q Even if the railroad industry goes full tilt on positive train separation, it will be many years before anything could be in place. Will you consider -- are you considering the possibility of requiring at least a simple cab signal system in commuter territory in the meantime, a technology that's been around for about 50 years now?

SECRETARY PENA: I think the answer is generally yes. That is part of the discussion that we're asking people to respond to as a factor in continuing to have cab car operations, what more can they do to increase the safety of those operations. Is that right?

MS. MOLITORIS: One of the things the rules says is that once we work with the agencies and review their safety plans, we leave open the possibility of other requirements to enhance safety if the plans themselves do not meet the kinds of safety levels that the Department is looking for.

Q Could you tell me who is responsible for inspecting the rail passenger cars?

MS. MOLITORIS: The Federal Railroad Administration inspectors are responsible for monitoring the safety activities of the railroads themselves.

Q What exactly is "monitoring"?

MS. MOLITORIS: We inspect -- we have random inspections, we have team inspections, we have computer-based directed inspection that are risk -- that are driven and designed according to exemplified risk. We are working with all railroads to establish management -- annual management safety plans, where there is actually agreement between labor, management and the FRA on the kinds of safety goals they will achieve in a given period of time.

Q Do you have enough inspectors?

MS. MOLITORIS: We have a team of very dedicated inspectors. We have a huge territory to cover. I think the term "enough" would be difficult to define. I think we are encouraged by the increasing safety trends in the rail industry.

Q How many do you have?

MS. MOLITORIS: We have a little over 400.

Q One follow-up. Do they -- your recommendations that were issued in '93, do the inspections cover whether the cars are complying with those safety recommendations?

MS. MOLITORIS: They are inspecting both passenger and freight cars, so, yes, they are inspecting for those.

Q Sir, have you ever addressed the question of why there are no seat belts on passenger trains like Amtrak?

SECRETARY PENA: I think the Federal Railroad Administration has look at the seat belt question in the past. And, Joanne, do you want to address that?

MS. MOLITORIS: There is not a rule about seat belts. However, in the discussions among the Board and the management at Amtrak, that discussion has been raised and we are discussing in the Federal Railroad Administration. In the working group, which is focused on passenger car safety and design and interior design, for example, the seat belt issue is very much on the table. And as a matter of fact, in terms of the specs for the new high speed train sets, there is an opportunity to have those specs undergird a seat belt initiative.

Q Does it seem to you that a train that might go 63 miles an hour, as the MARC train was apparently going, ought to have seat belts, and a Metroliner that goes upwards of a hundred miles an hour?

MS. MOLITORIS: I think it's a very -- a legitimate point to discuss and I think it's certainly shown safety benefits in other modes.

SECRETARY PENA: I was told that was the last question.

Q I just wanted to clarify -- your first and your third recommendations, one about the windows and doors not working and the other one about calling out signals -- have you determined that these were things that were not done in the Silver Spring accident --

SECRETARY PENA: I have twice stated in my opening comment that the National Transportation Safety Board has not made a final conclusion about the cause of this accident. But enough has been said. For example, the Board has found that the train was, in fact, traveling 63 miles an hour. So based on that fact and that finding, we believe the directive and the emergency order were issuing today is appropriate.

I, again, want to thank the people who are standing with me and the many people and their agencies who worked over the weekend to get this done today. It is an example of our ability to respond very quickly whenever we have a challenge like this. This is precisely what the President wants us to do to ensure the highest levels of safety we can for the travelling public. Thank you all very much.

END 4:04 P.M. EST