STONINGTON —Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., announced Friday at Stonington Town Hall that he and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, of New York, will introduce a bill to fund safety measures at rail-grade crossing by investing $500 million per year over five years.
“No issue is more important than public safety on our railroads and the issue of public safety is directly implicated by these rail-grade crossings,” Blumenthal told a group of Stonington residents and officials.
The bill will focus on providing physical safety devices such as gates, signals and lights, as well as public education and enforcement of safety practices.
In Stonington, the Elihu Island and Walker’s Dock at-grade crossings lack quad gates and vehicle detection technology that the town’s other four crossings have. Both crossings were excluded from improvements made during the $2.3 billion Northeast Corridor High-Speed Improvement Program in the 1990s. Of the 13 at-grade crossings in Connecticut along the Northeast corridor rail line, six are in the Town of Stonington. The Elihu Island and Walker’s Dock crossings were the only two in the state that did not receive advanced safety features.
It is estimated that quad gates and loop detection could cost about $900,000 for both crossings, plus each crossing needs about $250,000 in improvements.
Blumenthal said Connecticut has 350 railroad crossings and there are about 100,000 nationwide.
“These trains go fast. Eight seconds is nowhere near enough warning, plus the blast of a horn is nothing like the warning that is necessary for cars to take it seriously,” he said. “I was at a railroad crossing earlier today in Hartford and I heard this horn blast and it sounded like it was miles away and literally within seconds that train was crossing the road and at that point the gates had come down, and that’s what we need at all of these rail-grade crossings, including the two here in Stonington that don’t have that protection.”
Federal rules require trains to blow their horns four times when approaching an unprotected crossing. With about 44 trains passing through the Stonington's two unprotected crossings per day, at least 160 horn blasts can be heard per day in the neighborhood.
John Malmros, who lives near the crossings, showed Blumenthal on a map that the train engineers cannot see what might be on the tracks around the curve before the two crossings.
“At the speed they’re traveling, they don’t have time to stop,” Malmros said. “If the proper protections are in place that you’re talking about, they will know well in advance that there’s something going on at that crossing and they can stop in time.”
Blumenthal said about 1,000 deaths happened at rail-grade crossings around the country in the last five years. “These rail-grade crossings are accidents waiting to happen,” he said.
He said that the General Accountability Office, a legislative branch government agency that provides auditing, evaluation, and investigative services for Congress, stated that rail-grade crossings are one of the major causes of death in rail-related accidents.
“An accident is something that you can’t foresee. This kind of crash is something, sadly and unfortunately, we can foresee very well,” the senator said. “It may seem to people that the odds are low but the consequences are so dire and severe that we need to prevent it from happening.”
The bill would provide funding to the Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration, he said.
Blumenthal said he planned to work in a bipartisan manner on the bill and will write a letter to the chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., to ask for a hearing.
If the bill receives a hearing, First Selectman Rob Simmons would be invited to speak before the committee, he said.
“I think he is an ardent and articulate a spokesperson as we have for this measure,” Blumenthal said, adding that there has been no hearing on highway railway crossings for 15 years.
Simmons said he would write Wicker a letter in support of the bill as well.
“Public safety is not a partisan issue,” Simmons said. “In this instance, Republicans, Democrats and the unaffiliated use the crossings and they expect us as public officials to make them safe.”