California Rail Officials Seek to Reassure On High-Speed Train Safety

California high-speed rail officials sought Thursday to reassure the public about safety in the wake of deadly European train crashes this summer.

An eight-car train that crashed in northern Spain last week, killing 79 passengers, was not operating on a system like the one planned for California, and it was not part of the country's high-speed rail network, members of the board that oversees the California project said at their meeting Thursday.

"That segment of track where that tragic accident occurred did not have the kind of automated, computer-controlled train control that would have issued an override and would have slowed down the train,'' board Chairman Dan Richard told reporters after the meeting. "We'll have full train controls on every inch of our system so that kind of accident could not happen.''

Spanish officials have said the train carrying 218 passengers was traveling at nearly twice the 50-mph speed limit as it neared a high-risk curve on July 24, careening off the tracks and slamming into a concrete wall. A court in Santiago de Compostela has said the train's black boxes showed the driver was on a phone at the time of the crash.

Richard noted that U.S. law prohibits train drivers from using a cellphone while operating a train.

Officials had hoped to break ground on the first 29-mile segment of California's $68 billion high-speed rail system in July. Richard said plans are progressing and a groundbreaking should happen soon. He said Californians are right to ask questions about the planned safety features, but they should be reassured by the answers.

"The risk for us in the U.S. is not about moving to high-speed rail, it's about not moving to high-speed rail. High-speed rail systems will be more modern and they will come with all of these protections that some of the existing rail lines don't have today,'' Richard said.

On July 12, six people were killed and nearly 200 injured just south of Paris when four cars of a passenger train slid off the tracks in the small French town of Bretigny-sur-Orge. In Canada, a parked railway train with 72 tankers of crude oil rolled down an incline, derailed and slammed into the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, on July 6. Several tankers exploded, destroying 40 buildings and killing 47 people.

Two regional trains collided head-on Monday in western Switzerland, killing the driver of one train and sending 26 passengers to hospitals.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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