TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senator Shirley K. Turner that would require local and state police to enter the scene of a train accident and preserve it from further disturbance is one step closer to law as it passed the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee today.
“When I became aware of the number of railroad accidents that go unreported or misreported each year, I knew action needed to be taken to better ensure public safety at rail crossings,” said Senator Turner, D-Mercer. “The law as it stands is unclear as to whether local police can begin to conduct the investigation of a railroad accident if they are the first to arrive at the scene. When an accident scene remains unsecured for even just a few minutes longer than necessary, the potential for crucial evidence to be disturbed is too great. This bill reduces that possibility by granting local police the power to begin an investigation.”
The genesis of Senator Turner’s bill, S-1918, was a series of reports highlighted in a New York Times expose on rail safety that said numerous accidents either go unreported or are not investigated by the Federal Railroad Administration. Furthermore, the reports cited several instances where it was claimed that railroad employees tampered with equipment and the scene of the accident to reduce or eliminate evidence that would put fault on the railroad company before the Federal Railroad Administration was able to send someone to the scene to investigate.
Senator Turner also noted that railroad crossing safety issues need to be addressed. “In an average day in America, there will be at least one fatality caused by an accident at a railroad crossing. Since 2000, you are twice as likely to die at a railroad grade crossing than in an airplane crash. We need to do more, both on the national and state level, to improve the safety of railroad crossings,” said Senator Turner.
The bill would authorize and require local or State police, whomever is at the scene of a rail accident first, to enter the area and protect the scene from any further disturbance of any railroad grade crossing accident involving a fatality. The local or State police would also have to preserve and document all evidence pertaining to the accident and remain in the area until such time as they have sufficient information to make a complete report of the accident to the New Jersey Department of Transportation (DOT), who would have to retain the report for at least two years.
The Federal Railroad Administration currently requires that if a fatality takes place involving a passenger or employee, or if five or more civilians are killed, the rail company involved must report the accident to the Federal Railroad Administration within two hours. All other incidents, including when less than five civilians are killed, do not have to be reported by the rail company for 30 days.
“The past news reports of evidence tampering by railroad employees after accidents at rail crossing is a cause for great concern,” added Senator Turner. “The law needs to be changed in order to ensure that railroad companies cannot literally sweep these accidents under the tracks. Every rail accident should be investigated as completely and accurately as possible so that problems with rail safety can be addressed as quickly as possible and all railroad fatalities should be reported immediately. As the saying goes, if we do not learn from the past, we are more likely to repeat our mistakes in the future.”
The bill would also subject any person who impedes the conduct of a rail accident probe to a civil penalty of no less than $550 and no more than $11,000. The local or state police would also be permitted to leave the scene of the accident when the investigation is completed or allow the train to continue its trip at their discretion.
S-1918 passed unanimously. It now goes to the full Senate for their approval.