The news on July 26, 2019 of the derailment at speed of Amtrak 393 at University Park, Ill., due to a careless truck driver created a PTSD-like reaction for me. Instantaneously, I thought back to the derailment of Amtrak 59 at Bourbonnais, Ill., the night of March 15, 1999. Despite denials, this wreck was due to the overt negligence of a driver attempting to beat fully functional grade crossing warning devices with a truck loaded with 22 tons of steel pipe. Regrettably, the driver’s reckless behavior resulted in 11 people killed; much equipment was destroyed in the ensuing fire.
From my perspective, nothing has changed since that horrible March night more than 20 years ago. Amtrak’s self-insurance continues to fund, where feasible, equipment repairs and liabilities to passengers; the cost of business interruption of the train involved and possible cancellation of other trains due to damaged infrastructure; and costs for replacement bus transportation, hotels, meals for its displaced passengers. As well, the freight railroad (usually a Class I) on whose infrastructure Amtrak is a tenant also pays to repair its infrastructure and in certain cases, passenger liabilities.
With respect to the plethora of trucks violating grade crossings and the general apathy of the mainstream media, which continues to incorrectly report how “a train hit a truck,” as if the train jumped the tracks, it is high time for the railroad industry to take on this issue, as the timeliness could not be better, given how Congress is now marking up surface transportation bills and reviewing budgets.
The railroad industry needs to acknowledge how the standard for safe truck driving has been set, and maintained, by the large national truck firms, such as J.B. Hunt and Schneider (major railroad intermodal customers), where they apparently provide a no-nonsense work environment to control and monitor their drivers, including requisite rest periods and maximum driving time. However, the smaller truck firms and individual truck operators can no longer be tolerated to continue to willfully act negligently by violating federal and state highway and safety laws that directly threaten rail crews and passengers, causing significant property damage, as well as needless deaths and injuries. Action must be taken to prevent the careless incursion of farm vehicles crossing a private rail right-of-way that distorted the track alignment, causing derailment of Amtrak 4 in Kansas in 2015; the numerous interference of rail services along the CSX between Richmond-Miami/Tampa due to private autos and trucks simply ignoring active warning ldevices and train horns; the farm truck violating the right-of-way to derail a Metrolink train and kill the engineer.
Although the fight is far from over to prevent heavier and longer trucks on our highways, the railroad industry must now kick chairs back in corporate offices and declare they are “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.” This is a unique opportunity for Amtrak, freight railroads, commuter railroads and labor to work together under the auspices of the principal industry group, the Association of American Railroads, to establish a high-level decision-making task force in coordination with the Federal Railroad Administration and Surface Transportation Board (Editor’s note: Be sure to include Operation Lifesaver) to expeditiously petition the appropriate House and Senate committees to create legislation frankly predicated upon a vivisection of the known issues and expected results. As railroads represent interstate commerce, Congress is the appropriate legislative body at the federal level to implement the desired legislation to explicitly state:
It shall be the intent of this bill to treat the rise in vehicular (auto, truck, bus) willful violation of railroad grade crossings protected by gates, flashing lights, and bells; or by train horns, as the country previously dealt with the unacceptable rise in DUI accidents, and the carnage caused by such reckless behavior.
If the driver of the auto/truck survives when avoiding the grade crossing warnings and gets hit by the train, the driver will automatically lose his or her license for twelve months. If such incident at a grade crossing is repeated, the driver will automatically and permanently lose his or her driving license. If a truck driver is caught driving without a license, or repeating yet again another case of contributory negligence by incursion of the grade crossing, the driver is automatically sentenced to federal prison for no less than three years, loses his or her license, and is disqualified for insurance coverage. Clearly, such negligent drivers are not to be re-hired, or hired by another trucking firm. Ideally, all truck firms shall utilize the hair test during recruitment, and on a random basis on drivers, to identify potential drug or alcohol problems, in order to intervene in a preemptive manner.
As it shall be deemed that all liability shall be exclusively on the truck driver and his or her insurance, all truck firms smaller in size than national shall be required to carry the appropriate level of insurance for intra-state and interstate commerce to cover the following liabilities:
1) Property Damage/Repairs: Amtrak and commuter rail equipment; freight railroad infrastructure in lieu of self-insurance or deductions.
2) Comprehensive Health Care, Treatment, Pharmaceuticals, DME, and Rehabilitation for injured crews from Amtrak, commuter or freight railroad; Amtrak or commuter passengers; with the intent to avoid for the injured party all costs related to deductions, out-of-pocket, out-of-network, transportation for family member to out of area hospital, and air ambulance returning to their hometown.
3) Comprehensive Death Benefits: A set number will need to be identified by age and family status to fully cover survivors of deceased, e.g., mortgage, college, etc.
4) Business Interruption: To avoid cost of self-insurance or deductions, freight railroad to be reimbursed for all costs incurred due to business interruption of its services in either direction due to negligence of driver that disrupts the infrastructure. Amtrak/commuter line to be reimbursed for all costs incurred due to business interruption as defined above, including cancellation of trains in either direction for the period infrastructure is under repair; as well, substitute transportation, food, hotel.
These costs shall be paid in full upon receipt by the insurance of the auto driver, with the balance paid by the driver or liens on their property; by the trucking firm or its insurance. If the trucking firm is involved in another such grade crossing accident within twelve consecutive months from the time of the initial encroachment upon the grade crossing, the U.S. DOT will penalize the trucking firm with a significant step system of fines appropriate to the accident and place its commercial license on probation; as well, directly notify the carrier’s insurance to ensure the policy going forward is covered by a higher, punitive cost, with the possibility of being cancelled. In essence, there can be no longer be any deference to such rogue drivers and the accidents and bodily harm caused due to exhaustion/fatigue or making time, as induced by marijuana, drugs or alcohol.
U.S. DOT, in conjunction with the FRA, shall compile and maintain an updated complete computer record accessible to state licensing agencies of truck firms and drivers, as well as insurance firms, to list by state, indicating:
- Freight railroad infrastructure/service involved; Amtrak or commuter service involved; location.
- Truck firm, truck driver or auto driver by name, home address, state and driver license number.
- Estimated property damage; cost of business interruption; health care.
- List deaths by number on the train; truck.
- Indicate if first such negligent act by driver and/or firm; or, reference prior such incidents and driver(s).
This request for immediate legislative action is in reaction to how the trucking industry has refused to police its own members; how this industry obviously enjoys the contribution of PACs to manipulate or defer public policy; therefore, the need for the U.S. DOT and FRA to follow through on implementing the intent of this legislation. We need to dis-incentivize the cavalier, circus atmosphere of truck drivers playing chicken with trains. We need to stop the assassination of railroad crews and passengers by placing the onus of guilt where it belongs—on truck drivers, trucking firms and auto drivers.