Passengers on Amtrak and U.S. commuter railroads would be able to escape trains more easily after accidents under a rule proposed by U.S. regulators 14 years after a transportation safety board recommended it.
Passenger trains, like airplanes, would be required to have doors that can be opened in emergencies and lighting to guide riders to exits if it’s dark or the rail car fills with smoke, the Federal Railroad Administration said in the proposed rule posted today in the Federal Register.
Vestibule doors for entering and exiting rail cars would have to have a removable window or panel in case they won’t open, and doors that open in the middle would need an override feature. The rule’s cost would range from $21.8 million to $40.8 million over 20 years, the agency said.
“I’m grateful I lived long enough to see the rule proposed,” Jim Hall, who was chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board in 1997 when it recommended these changes, said in an interview today.
Consideration of safety improvements was prompted by a Feb. 16, 1996, crash in Silver Spring, Maryland, of Maryland Area Regional Commuter and Amtrak trains that killed eight passengers and three crew members in one car. Door emergency-release handles were damaged by fire and the interior lighting system didn’t operate after the crash, the railroad administration said in the proposed rule.
Railroad Agency, Amtrak
The regulator acted previously on other safety board recommendations resulting from the 1996 crash, Warren Flatau, a spokesman, said in an e-mail.
“FRA assigns great importance to NTSB recommendations and seeks to satisfactorily address them in a deliberate and systematic manner,” Flatau said. The agency issued emergency preparedness regulations in 1998 and passenger equipment safety standards in 1999, he said.
Most passenger rail equipment already meets the proposed standards, Flatau said.
“Safety is Amtrak’s top priority,” he said in an e-mail. “Our existing equipment is compliant with federal rail safety requirements now on the books, and we are presently building 130 new single-level long-distance passenger rail cars that also will meet federal safety standards.”
The safety board found in its investigation of the Maryland crash that the death toll increased because people who survived the collision couldn’t operate emergency-exit doors or see through smoke.
The 11 deaths were in a MARC car. Seven passengers and one crew member survived the impact and died of smoke inhalation, the NTSB found.
The safety board, which has no regulatory authority, recommended later that year that FRA inspect all commuter-rail equipment to determine that rail cars are equipped with removable windows or panels that can be used in an emergency.
On Aug. 28, 1997, the NTSB called on the rail regulator to require better exit doors and emergency lighting on passenger cars. Both recommendations have remained open for more than 14 years, according to the board’s website.
Requiring emergency-exit doors might lead to deaths or serious injuries from passengers attempting to exit moving trains, Allan Rutter, then the railroad agency’s administrator, said in an April 17, 2002, letter to the safety board.
The FRA required in 1999 that trains capable of speeds from 125 miles per hour (201 kilometers per hour) to 150 mph (241 kph) have exit panels on doors. That would apply to Amtrak’s Acela, the fastest U.S. passenger train, which operates between Washington and Boston.
Other improvements, such as windows that open in an emergency, had improved the chances that passengers in an accident could escape, according to a May 20, 2009, letter to the safety board from FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo.
“The most rewarding thing about the work at the NTSB is the opportunity to prevent the needless loss of life in accidents,” Hall, who is now principal of Hall & Associates LLC in Washington. “I firmly believe if this rule is put in place, sometime in the future others will live because of this safety change.”
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