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Speeches

Remarks at the Metrolink Safety Summit
Jennifer Homendy
Los Angeles, CA
9/12/2019

​Thank you for that kind introduction, Conan, and thank you to Metrolink’s leadership for inviting me to speak today. It’s an honor to be here on the 11th anniversary of Chatsworth speaking “in memory of those that left us and in honor of those who survived” as the plaque reads at Moorpark station.

As Conan mentioned, my name’s Jennifer Homendy and I’m a Board Member with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

As many of you know, the NTSB is an independent federal agency charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident in the United States and significant accidents in other modes of transportation, including rail.

We also investigate certain commercial space accidents, in coordination with the National Aeronautical Space Administration (NASA), the United States Air Force, and the Federal Aviation Administration. (FAA) You’ll see why I mention this a little later.

Here in Los Angeles, you may have seen coverage of our ongoing investigation of the fire aboard the Conception, the dive boat that tragically sank off Santa Cruz Island over the Labor Day weekend, resulting in the deaths of 34 people.

As a Board member, it’s my job to serve as the public face on major investigations, to free our investigators to do their work.

Perhaps the most difficult part of what I do on-scene – and certainly the most heart-wrenching – is meeting with the family members of those who lost their lives or were injured in transportation disasters.

We meet with them when their loss is still fresh, and their emotions are still raw, when they are looking for answers that we don’t have yet.

The only thing that I can offer them is a promise that we will find out what happened; that we will find out why it happened; and that we will determine what safety improvements are needed to prevent it from happening again.

But the most difficult part of my job is also the most inspiring. When I met with the families following the Conception fire last week, a representative from the Santa Barbara Emergency Operations Center explained that healing isn’t linear, that their stages of grief will constantly change, and that that’s ok.

Inevitably, at some point along the way, we will likely see some of those families (as we have with many others) take a terrible tragedy – the worst day of their lives – and turn it into something meaningful to save another life.

In January 2007, Congressman James Oberstar became Chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the U.S. House of Representatives. He was previously the Ranking Democrat and I had served as his Staff Director on the Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee since 2004.

Just prior to Oberstar becoming Chairman, the NTSB had completed an investigation of a freight train accident in Graniteville, South Carolina. A Norfolk Southern train traveling at about 45 mph encountered a misaligned switch, entered a siding, and hit a standing Norfolk Southern freight train that was adjacent to a textile plant.

The train was transporting chlorine. Three of the chlorine tank cars derailed. One car was breached and released chlorine gas which blanketed the ground. The train engineer, whose name was Chris Seeling, and eight other people died of chlorine gas inhalation. About 500 people were hospitalized for inhalation injuries, and more than 5,000 people were evacuated.

Chris was only 28 years old.

The accident was preventable had Positive Train Control (PTC) been implemented, and it followed a number of other PTC preventable accidents that occurred around that time, including another chlorine accident in Macdona, Texas.

Shortly after the release of the NTSB report, Chris’ parents met with Chairman Oberstar. As a mother, I can’t imagine a greater loss than the loss of your child, and here were Chris’ parents, asking us to move legislation that would require the railroads to implement the NTSB safety recommendations that would’ve prevented Chris’ death.

Following that meeting, the Subcommittee held a series of hearings focused on railroad safety and reauthorizing the Federal Railroad Administration, which had not been reauthorized since it was created in 1995.

In May 2007, the House approved legislation – H.R. 2095 – which mandated implementation of the Graniteville recommendations and established a deadline for implementation of PTC. The Senate passed their bill in 2008, and we were in the process of finalizing a bipartisan, bicameral bill to include PTC when Chatsworth happened.

None of us will forget that day; certainly, we will never forget the lives that were lost or forever changed.

But today, I don’t want to focus on what occurred or why it occurred. We know that already and we know how to prevent it from happening again. It’s my hope in speaking with you today that you leave this safety summit feeling inspired – inspired to take action; inspired to strengthen safety on our nation’s railways; inspired to do great things – hard things – to change the course of history in the railroad industry.

Because today is an historic day for another reason.

On September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy delivered one of the most iconic speeches of his presidency to a large crowd gathered at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas, known as “We Choose to Go to the Moon”. It is one of the most moving speeches I have ever heard. And to be clear, I didn’t hear it live…

A year earlier, the President began a dramatic expansion of the space program and committed the nation to the ambitious goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. And it was his job to sell it to Congress and the American people. He had a lot of support, but he also had a lot of critics; some thought it was a big waste of money with very few gains.

In fact, it became one of the most expensive endeavors in U.S. history. A total of about $23 billion in federal funds was spent which translates to about $192 billion in today’s dollars.

But he was masterful at selling it (and so was NASA), which was the focus of that September 12th speech.

In that speech, Kennedy acknowledged there would be high costs and hardships but promised high rewards. He criticized those who wanted to wait, saying our country “was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them.”

He quoted British explorer, George Mallory, who died on Mt. Everest. When asked why he wanted to climb it, Mallory said “Because it is there.”

And he quoted William Bradford in 1630: “All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.”

And then came the most famous lines of his speech.

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?”

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

I swear I practiced that in a Boston accent. It was terrible. Congressman Capuano, the former Ranking Member of my subcommittee, would be horrified. Erik, my senior advisor, tried and his came out sounding Australian.

Anyway, it’s a shame he didn’t live to see Neil Armstrong take those first steps in July 1969.

One month later, when news of the moon landing was barely off the front page of the newspapers, there was a collision of two Penn-Central commuter trains in Darien, Connecticut that killed four people and injured 43 others.

In the aftermath of the collision, the NTSB asked the Federal Railroad Administration to study the feasibility of a form of automatic train control (ATC) where trains meet other trains—our first recommendation linked to ATC and eventually PTC.

Since that time, the NTSB has investigated more than 150 accidents that would have been prevented had PTC been implemented, resulting in over 300 deaths and 6,700 injuries.

From the day that President Kennedy urged Congress and America to undertake an ambitious challenge of going to the moon, to the day that Neil Armstrong took that historic first step -- it had been eight short years. Think about that – eight years.

By 1990, when the NTSB released its first Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety improvements, we were far beyond asking for a feasibility study. We were demanding PTC implementation.

That was 29 years ago.

PTC could have prevented Chatsworth—11 years ago.

From the col lision in Darien to today, it’s been more than half a century.

I can think of no better place than here at this safety summit, on this day, September 12th, to repeat this rallying cry and try to inspire you to see a future – a new frontier, in Kennedy’s words – where there are zero accidents, zero deaths, and zero injuries in the rail industry.

Some of you may be questioning the comparison of space travel with PTC implementation and thinking, well of course they were able to accomplish that in less than a decade because it was fully funded by the federal government. Others may be questioning whether getting to zero is realistic.

Let’s look back at President Kennedy’s speech, when he asked “Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?” He was asking why Charles Lindbergh would fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic in May 1927. By Kennedy’s time, transatlantic flight was common, but it wasn’t necessarily safe. It was perilous 35 years earlier.

In fact, in 1962, there were 43 accidents involving U.S. commercial air service, 5 of which were fatal, which resulted in 183 fatalities and 34 serious injuries. In the decades that followed, one accident after another prompted Congress and the FAA, which was still in its infancy, to take action and mandate more rigorous safety standards and implement new safety technologies that came with a pretty hefty pricetag. And it worked!

For example, in the 70’s and 80’s, fatal accidents resulting from windshear peaked. In 1988, the FAA mandated that all commercial aircraft have on-board wind shear detection systems within 5 years, which completely eliminated windshear accidents. The last windshear accident involving commercial aircraft occurred 25 years ago in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Can you imagine saying 25 years from now there were zero PTC-preventable accidents? How about grade crossing incidents? Or just zero accidents and incidents in rail altogether? I can. That’s what happened in aviation.

In a matter of just 47 years when Kennedy gave that speech, we went from hundreds of deaths in commercial aviation to zero. Zero accidents in a decade, since the Colgan Air accident in 2009.

I had our research and engineering office run some numbers. Had there been no interventions in commercial aviation in terms of safety, and the accident rate remained the same as it was in 1962, 23 commercial aviation accidents would’ve occurred this year, resulting in 850 fatalities. We’re at zero!

Granted, the successes of the U.S. aviation industry can’t all be attributed to laws and regulations. In the 90’s, the industry began to embrace – slowly – a new safety culture and implement safety management systems.

Sure, their efforts were met with significant challenges and a lot of resistance. But to borrow a phrase from Kennedy, they did it not because it was easy but because it was hard…and, I believe, because it was the right thing to do.

I recently asked Richard Anderson, president of Amtrak, how he did it. He revolutionized how Northwest, Delta, and the entire aviation industry addressed safety, and now he’s trying to do the same at Amtrak.

In all the years, I’ve worked with Amtrak, not one president before Richard, was focused on safety as the number one goal. Richard told me it wasn’t easy in aviation and it won’t be in rail. In my opinion, nothing worth fighting for is easy.

But as difficult as PTC implementation is, or – looking at your agenda – grade crossing safety is, or trespasser prevention is…the real challenge is preventing an accident before it occurs and that’s why the NTSB is so focused on adoption of safety management systems in the rail industry.

We want to see the same success that the commercial aviation industry has seen.

Fifty years ago, President Kennedy challenged us to do something bold, something great, to lead - something a lot of people thought was impossible. So my challenge to each of you today is to create your own moonshot: to go for zero – zero accidents, zero fatalities, and zero injuries because it’s the right thing to do.

Thank you. Now I’d be happy to answer any questions.