Massachusetts reached a final agreement on a $100 million deal with railroad giant CSX that is expected to improve service between Worcester and Boston and lay the groundwork for a long-planned line to Fall River and New Bedford, Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray announced today.
The initial deal, to buy railroad tracks and a rail yard from CSX, had first been announced last year. But the sides acknowledged at the time that they had yet to work out a major sticking point -- establishing who had to pay in the event of a lawsuit involving a train crash or fatality on the tracks between Framingham and Worcester.
With a compromise reached, the state plans to take over those tracks sometime in 2011, giving the MBTA the ability to run more trains between the state's two largest cities, said Murray, who has championed the issue since he was mayor of Worcester. It also allows the T to maintain and dispatch the tracks, in hopes of improving service on one of the T's most popular but least reliable lines. A CSX spokesman, Bob Sullivan, would not confirm the 2011 turnover date but said the company would like to complete it as soon as possible.
The deal also gives the T control of the right-of-way needed to build the New Bedford-Fall River line and several properties around Boston that could improve service in and out of South Station.
“It's an enormous opening of opportunity,” said Senator John Kerry, who helped in negotiations.
But it is not without some risk.
The liability question was significant because CSX will continue to run freight trains along the track -- even after the state takes ownership -- and the company had been demanding complete immunity from lawsuits, even if its engineers were responsible for crashes. CSX has had that immunity in Massachusetts since a 1994 agreement was signed to let the T use the tracks, but Murray has insisted the protection put taxpayers at too much risk of paying millions of dollars on behalf of a private company.
Under the compromise announced today, CSX will pay the MBTA $500,000 a year toward the cost of its overall legal insurance and it agrees to pay the T's $7.5 million deductible if its employees are found "clearly at fault because of willful misconduct." State law caps train crash-related lawsuit payments against the T at $75 million.
Private civil lawyers say taxpayers could still end up paying for CSX negligence that does not meet the higher legal standard of "willful misconduct."
“Undeniably, it's exposing the MBTA, and therefore the Commonwealth, to more liability,” said Jeffrey Catalano, secretary of the Massachusetts Bar Association, who is suing CSX and the MBTA over a 2005 death on another part of the tracks. “It's challenging to establish willful misconduct.”
Murray acknowledged the agreement falls short of complete protection, but said it was a substantial improvement over the old deal giving CSX complete immunity.
“This is we think a reasonable compromise on both sides,” he said.
CSX has been involved in similar negotiations in other states and has consistently fought off attempts to accept liability, telling the Globe last March that the issue was "nonnegotiable." Sullivan said that the new agreement is “a mutually acceptable solution and we think it allows the Commonwealth to advance its vision."
See previous coverage here.