Train-Crash Victim’s Family Seeks End to Damages Cap
By Angela Greiling Keane Oct. 3 (Bloomberg) —
The daughter of a man killed in a 2002 head-on collision involving the Los Angeles Metrolink commuter train asked Congress to lift a cap on damages to speed the use of emergency braking technology.
Kelly Kube Beam, 28, whose father Robert Kube was killed in the April 23, 2002 crash, and the lawyer who represented her family after the accident, said railroads in the U.S. won’t quickly install the technology unless a $200 million limit on damages for passenger rail accidents is eliminated.
“My dad might still be here” if the train he was riding had so-called positive train control technology, Beam, of Moreno Valley, California, said today in an interview.
Kube, 59, was killed when a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. freight train crew missed signals telling them to stop and collided with the Metrolink train he was riding.
That accident, in which one other person died and more than 200 were injured, happened six years before last month’s Metrolink crash that killed 25 people after a Metrolink engineer, sending a text message on his mobile phone before the collision, failed to stop at a signal.
Lawyer Richard Bridgford, who represented Beam, her mother and sister in a wrongful death case following the crash, said that with the cap on damages for passenger rail accidents, U.S. railroads lack a financial incentive to install positive train control systems.
Installing such technology on major routes, as required in a bill President George W. Bush may sign, would cost as much as $5 billion, Macquarie Bank Ltd. analyst Arturo Vernon said in a report this week. The measure, which the U.S. Senate approved two days ago, following the House, would require railroads in the U.S. to install the braking technology on major routes by 2015.
Representative John Mica of Florida, the top Republican on the House transportation committee, yesterday said the Bush administration had told him the president will sign the bill.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates the causes of transportation accidents, called for installing positive train control systems after the 2002 Metrolink crash. Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Boardman said last month that the technology would have prevented the Sept. 12 crash in which a Metrolink train collided head-on with a Union Pacific Corp. freight train.
Unlike in the 2002 accident when the Metrolink train stopped before the crash and the freight train slowed, both trains last month were driving at normal speeds when they collided.
The limit on damages “has allowed the railroad executives to engage in a calculated cost-benefit analysis in which they weigh life on one hand against profit on the other hand,” Bridgford said in a joint interview with Beam.
Patti Reilly, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads in Washington, didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, last week called for Congress to examine the damages cap. Beam said she wrote to Boxer and other elected officials following the 2002 crash to call for rail safety improvements and would push for a congressional effort to eliminate the damages cap now.
The Congressional Research Service, in a Sept. 22 report, said the cap, which was established in a 1997 law restructuring the national U.S. passenger railroad Amtrak, said it would likely apply to lawsuits resulting from Metrolink’s latest accident.
“It appears likely that damages awarded in many of the potential claims will count against the liability cap,” the research service, which writes reports at Congress’s request, said.
Rail passengers can’t afford to wait until 2015, as required under the pending legislation, to have positive train control on busy train routes, Bridgford said.
“Given the oil shortages and the increased use of mass transit in California, given human error, you will see other catastrophes that could have been prevented by automatic train stop, positive train control,” he said.
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