One year ago Thursday, the nation was gripped by a transportation tragedy. In the early morning hours of Sept. 22, a barge tow collided with a railroad bridge in a remote Alabama bayou, causing the derailment a few minutes later of the Amtrak train Sunset Limited. Forty-seven people lost their lives in that accident. The magnitude of this loss should be the catalyst for strong steps to make the barge and towing industry safer.
Indeed, the Amtrak derailment thrust barge safety into the national spotlight. Understandably, the accident has led to a widespread review of the industry's safety record and the adequacy of the regulatory regime under which it operates. More important, it has sparked an unprecedented effort to devise solutions that will ensure accidents like this never happen again.The intense scrutiny by the public, the media, the government and the industry itself is producing results. Working with the secretary of transportation, the Coast Guard and the congressional merchant marine committees, a better picture is emerging of what causes accidents and what government and industry can do to help us avoid them in the future.
In fact, the past year's work has produced consensus barge safety legislation, the Towing Vessel Navigational Safety Act. This bill would require the installation and proficient use of navigational aids such as radar on all towing vessels. The bill targets government action in an area with real value - providing navigators with the full array of tools they need to do their jobs and assuring that navigators are proficient in their use.
The year since the Amtrak derailment also has led to a deeper appreciation that solutions are sometimes complex. Separate, independent analyses by the National Transportation Safety Board, the Coast Guard and by the American Waterways Operators all lead to the same basic conclusion: the single most effective way to reduce vessel accidents is to focus on human error, especially navigator error in the wheelhouse.
With this clear result in mind, the American Waterways Operators recently called on Congress to expand the pending safety bill to establish new licensing requirements that would ensure the competency and proficiency of those who operate towing vessels.
This new licensing standard could be patterned after provisions in a separate safety bill drafted by Rep. Gerry Studds, the chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. For example, the existing license for ''operator, uninspected towing vessels" should be replaced with a new ''master/mate" licensing system. To obtain one of these new licenses, an applicant would have to show proficiency in the operation of a towing vessel.
The Coast Guard licensing process today is principally focused on sea- time and test-taking. Expanding the licensing criteria to include a demonstration of proficiency will ensure that individuals also have the real- world navigational and boat-handling skills to safely pilot a towing vessel. The towing industry would be the first segment of the U.S.-flag maritime industry to embrace a navigational proficiency standard. The others undoubtedly will follow.
Today, the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee will consider the consensus towing vessel safety bill. This provides an important opportunity - perhaps the last opportunity - to advance meaningful, targeted legislation that will help prevent a repeat of last year's tragedy.
The Journal of Commerce, in its recent editorial on waterway safety, concluded that "prudent safety regulation geared to potential risk is a sound way to reduce the chances of another accident like Amtrak's Sunset Limited." All we've learned in the past year tells us that human error is the potential risk of greatest magnitude. This bill, expanded to address navigational proficiency, addresses that issue squarely.
Once this bill has cleared the committee, Congress should approve it before adjourning for the year. Upsetting a solid consensus by introducing controversial amendments - on manning, vessel inspection and merchant mariners' documents - unsupported by Coast Guard and industry casualty statistics and unrelated to the safety board's findings in the Amtrak case, will jeopardize the chances of passing any towing safety legislation this year.
In the end, failure to pass a safety bill would only compound the Amtrak tragedy and serve to indict all of us who profess to care so much about transportation safety.