Legislators in Washington and Sacramento who are wrestling with the rapidly increasing dangers of teh crude-by-rail boom appear to have hit a brick wall put up by federal regulators and the train industry. Committee hearings in the California State Senate (Feb. 24), the U.S. House (Feb. 26) and Senate (March 6) came to the same basic impasse:
Rail companies are making a series of perfectly respectable yet perfectly inadequate half-steps to protect rail safety; federal regulators are unwilling to require companies to take any further steps; and state regulators are toothless.
The real takeaway, however, is the refreshingly strong stand taken at each of the three hearings by officials from the National Transportation Safety Board. Despite its name, the NTSB has no real power and can only issue advisory opinions. But its expertise is widely recognized, and it has had real effect in encouraging lawmakers to grow a spine and demand reform.
For a thorough summary of how federal regulators on train safety have fallen down on the job, it's worth reading the March 6 Senate testimony of Christopher Hart, vice chairman of the NTSB. Federal officials don't often use words such as "unacceptable" to publicly describe the actions and inactions of the federal agency they oversee. In the bland policy-speak of the Obama administration, it's the equivalent of a kick to the face. After the jump are Hart's main points: