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Globe Editorial

No immunity in train accidents

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March 26, 2008

OFFICIALS have not yet determined who was responsible for the accident that injured 150 commuter rail passengers in Canton Tuesday evening. If CSX freight company workers are to blame, the company can and should be held liable, something CSX opposes on another commuter rail line it is negotiating to sell to the state. The company needs to back off its insistence on immunity.

CSX workers left four boxcars full of lumber at a siding next to the commuter rail tracks. One car broke free and struck the commuter train. The track is owned by the MBTA, and no special exemptions from liability are in place. So any party responsible for the accident can be sued for personal injury, the kind of litigation that ought to encourage improved safety procedures.

CSX and the Patrick administration are locked in negotiations over the purchase of four railroad parcels, the most contentious being the line between Framingham and Worcester, where the MBTA has run commuter rail service, over CSX tracks, since 1995. This line is frequently used for freight.

For 13 years, CSX insisted that it be absolved from liability for any commuter rail accident caused by its workers, and the company wants to maintain this exemption when the state takes over the line.

State ownership would allow the MBTA to increase rail service from Boston to Worcester, and both sides have agreed on the sale price. The sticking point is liability, and Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray is right to criticize the company for its ''unwillingness to be creative and responsible.'' CSX Vice President Lisa Mancini has called the issue ''non-negotiable.'' While the two sides should keep talking, the company should not make unreasonable requests.

Perhaps the company has a point that it should not be burdened with unlimited liability for an accident, which could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. But it should not be let off scot-free for its employees' mistakes. Surely a middle ground is possible. In Florida, the state agreed to a liability exemption as a condition for its purchase of track to establish commuter rail service in the Orlando area. Some legislators there are balking at accepting the deal. This controversy has national implications wherever passenger service shares tracks with freight trains. The federal government ought to broker a compromise on this issue that caps CSX liability but still leaves it responsible for a significant amount of damages.

As the Canton accident shows, sharing a line between two different train services poses unusual dangers. A blanket exemption from lawsuits offers a disincentive to minimize these hazards.

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