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No fault? No way, CSX told

US lawmakers urge commuter-rail deal

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ralph Ranalli
Globe Staff / April 10, 2008

All 12 members of the state's congressional delegation have sent a strongly worded letter to the CSX Corp., threatening legislation if the rail-freight giant continues to insist that it should not be held liable for the human cost of train accidents, even when it is at fault.

Despite repeated criticisms of its no-fault arrangements with Amtrak and passenger rail services in other parts of the country, CSX has demanded the same deal as a nonnegotiable part of a proposed sale of its tracks running between Worcester and Framingham.

Massachusetts officials, who are eager to buy the tracks and expand passenger rail service linking Worcester and Boston, have termed the provision outrageous and have labeled it a deal-breaker. Now federal lawmakers have stepped in and are threatening hearings and legislative remedies.

Under the proposed no-fault arrangement, if one of the MBTA's commuter-rail trains crashed and CSX were determined to be at fault, the company would be liable for train and track damage, but not for passenger injuries or deaths. Critics say the provision would protect CSX even if one of its employees was found to have been drinking or using drugs on the job.

"That is a stupid deal to get into," said US Representative James McGovern. "It's nuts."

The letter, sent by US Senator John Kerry and signed by the entire Massachusetts delegation, rips CSX's insistence on no-fault liability. "This type of provision would put taxpayers and fare-payers at undue risk and prevent the MBTA from adequately insuring safety," the letter states. "Expansion of commuter rail service is enormously important to us and our constituents, and we believe that an agreement can be reached without the need for federal interference. However, in the event that no progress is made in the short term, we are prepared to consider congressional action, including potential legislative solutions mandating what is acceptable in freight-commuter rail contracts."

The track deal, worth an estimated $300 million to $400 million, involves the sale of the Worcester/Framingham line's tracks, as well as rights-of-way on CSX tracks through Fall River, on the South Shore, and between Allston and Chelsea. The negotiations also involve the sale of CSX property in the South End and South Boston, which the state wants as part of an expansion of the Port of Boston, and a plan to relocate CSX's Allston rail yard to accommodate Harvard University expansion plans.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by New York Times reporter Walt Bogdanich published four years ago found that similar no-fault agreements forced publicly funded Amtrak to pay millions in liability claims for injuries and deaths that were determined to be CSX's fault.

CSX, however, has defended its no-fault agreements, calling the practice "the industry standard" and saying that it results in fewer legal battles and less red tape.

"A no-fault insurance system puts the public first by ensuring that payments are made quickly and efficiently when the need arises, rather than having them tied up in litigation as often occurs with at-fault insurance mechanisms," the company said in a written statement.

In a written response to the letter from the federal lawmakers, CSX also said that giving up on no-fault liability would be counter to the interests of the company's shareholders.

State officials, led by Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray, are pushing to double the number of commuter trains serving Worcester, Grafton, Westborough, Southborough, and Ashland. The Worcester-to-Framingham corridor, however, is one of the few stretches of track used by the MBTA's contractor, the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co., that is not controlled by the state.

CSX's control of the tracks allows the company to give priority to its freight trains, McGovern said, which causes delays and prevents the MBTA from scheduling sufficient trips during peak commuting hours.

"The service is not frequent enough, and it's not always on time," said McGovern, who is calling for hearings on the issue. "We are trying to get more people to use the commuter rail, but right now we are at the mercy of CSX."

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