Train-Vehicle Accidents in Texas Year Total Accidents Deaths Injuries 1969 980 115 486 1970 1.013 123 496 1971 1,023 95 500 1972. 1,159 109 567 1973 1,256 106 596 1974 1,162 117 550 1975 1,088 87 519 1976 1,101 69 647 1977 1,184 69 592 *1978 1,056 95 581 * 1978 figures are preliminary and subject to change. Source: Texas Department of Public Safety. decided last fall not to issue uniform national standards for marking crossings, the RRC could promulgate uniform state standards. As a result, according to John G. Soule, director of the commission’s transportation division, “the question of uniform marking standards for all grade crossings in Texas remains within the Railroad Commission’s regulatory jurisdiction.” But of course to exercise jurisdiction requires money. For the past two sessions of the Legislature, the RRC’s requests for state funds to support its rail safety efforts have been turned down. For the next biennium, it is requesting $434,882 from the state for its total rail safety program, and federal matching funds would raise this budget item to $763,427. But less than 14 percent of that would be used to protect Texas motorists from state participation in a federal track and equipment inspection program. The remaining $106,337 would support the commission’s exercise of its own rail safety regulatory jurisdiction, including control of crossings. The money would be used to hire inspectors and support personnel. Soule has made it clear that “in these and other areas not pre-empted or occupied by the federal government, there will be no regulation if state funding is not provided.” So far, state funding is doubtful. The Legislative Budget Board recommended that no money be appropriated to the RRC for rail safety for the next biennium. Then Sen. Babe Schwartz of Galveston introduced a bill appropriating the full amount the RRC requested, and the House appropriations committee has since gone along with the full-funding proposal. The Senate, however, has approved the LBB’s zero appropriation level, and the issue is probably on its way to a conference committee. At least one group that’s not complaining about the RRC’s inability to acquire state funds is the Texas Railroad Associationthe industry’s lobby in Texas. The railroads’ chief spokesman before Senate and House committees has .been Walter Caven, TRA’s general counsel and registered lobbyist. He contends that jurisdiction over crossing safety lies strictly with the Highway Department. Addressing an interim Senate jurisprudence committee meeting last October, Caven said, “The Railroad Commission has never done anything to assist us in any way with grade-crossing safety. The problem is on the highway, not the railroad. It’s not properly a jurisdictional matter for the Railroad Commission.” Earlier this year, Caven had this to say before an appropriative subcommittee of the House transportation committee: “For the first time in the history of the Railroad Commission, they’re going to decide that they can solve all the grade-crossing problems in the state. Why should the Railroad Commission try to get into that act when the Highway Department has been doing it for 12 years? I’m telling you, gentlemen, you should leave that one where it is.” “Where it is” is pretty much in the hands of the railroad companies themselves. They are responsible for maintaining signal equipment and crossbucks, and the Highway Department has no authority to make them do it. The department’s role is 4 APRIL 27, 1979 primarily administrativeit reviews safety complaints from local governments and traffic data supplied by the railroads, and it can recommend to the State Highway Commission that safety equipment at a particular crossing be improved, though that involves going through an incredible bureaucratic-corporate maze and is limited by the availability of public funds to pay for the new equipment. In the dozen years of Highway Department oversight referred to by Caven, 1,229 Texans have lost their lives at railroad crossings, so there’s at least an argument that some other agency ought to “get into the act.” Not that the Railroad Commission would necessarily be a regulatory tiger. For decades, the commissioners have had a cozy relationship with the railroads, and they’ve shown no leadership whatsoever in rail safety matters, even though they had broad safety jurisdiction long before the federal safety law was enacted. A 1926 Texas statute directs the RRC to “see that all laws of this state concerning railroads are enforced and that violations thereof are promptly prosecuted. It shall investigate all complaints against all railroad companies.” Further, the commission “is vested with full power to require any railroad company to purchase or secure for installation in its roadbed or track .. . material and equipment as may, in the judgment of the Commission, be necessary for the proper maintenance of the whole or any designated portion of such track and roadbed so as to put the same in safe condition.” Judging by past performance, however, you’d never know the commission has such broad powers. By its own admission, its efforts in rail safety have been “minimal.” Prior to 1970, it had only one engineer on its staff who, on an emergency basis, investigated complaints about particular crossings. There has never been a rail safety staff, nor is there one now. A look at vehicle-train accident figures for the past decade suggests the According to the Department of Public Safety, train-related deaths account for less than 3 percent of total statewide highway deaths. But what distinguishes train-vehicle accidents is the high probability that deaths will be their result. A congressional report prepared in 1976 estimated the probability of death in most types of accidents at 1 percent. For vehicle-train accidents, the probability increases to 14 percent, with a 50 percent chance of injury. Only an airplane crash carries a greater certainty of death. Accidents can be reduced, but it takes a strong agency with clear jurisdictional authority to do it. A DOT study reported that California has one of the most effective crossing safety programs in the country, having cut deaths at crossings by 60 percent. What’s the key to their success? An active state regulatory agency, the Public Utilities Commission of California, which “has exclusive power to determine and prescribe the manner, point of crossing, terms of installation, operation, maintenance, and protection of crossings”and which exercises that power, even to the point of conducting its own accident investigations. According to the DOT study, “The [California] Public Utilities Commission is one of the strongest agencies in the U.S. today in the field of railroad/highway grade crossing safety by virtue of its legislative authority, large staff of experts, and state funding program. The Texas Railroad Commission has the authority, but lacks the staff and funding. The last two are needed immediately before the RRC abandons its rail safety responsibilities altogether. Transportation director Soule has laid down an ultimatum to the House transportation committee, saying that if the Legislature is not going to give the commission any funds, the commission’s duties should be changed from “rail safety and planning” to “rail planning,” and that a rider should be attached to the RRC’s appropriation specifically prohibiting the commission from expending any of its appropriated money on matters relating to rail safety. Observer staff assistant Jeannette Garrett is a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin.