The federal government said Monday that it will take action this year that could eventually require Metra and other railroads to install inward-facing video cameras in locomotives.

The cameras would be focused on the engineers operating the trains, a step that some experts say could help in the event of accidents to determine whether there was dangerous behavior, like an engineer falling asleep, texting or otherwise being distracted.

Although the engineers union has fought the cameras, advocates say the videos could have been helpful in determining the cause of railroad accidents like the ones that occurred in 2003 and 2005 on Metra's Rock Island Line. Two passengers were killed in the 2005 derailment.

The National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency in charge of investigating major rail accidents, has been recommending the installation of such cameras in locomotives for years, largely to no avail.

Calls for the cameras intensified after the Dec. 1 derailment on the Metro-North Railroad in New York City that killed four passengers and injured scores.

The lawyer and union representing the Metro-North engineer have reportedly said he has admitted to "nodding off" and regaining focus too late to avoid the accident.

On Monday, the Federal Railroad Administration, which regulates the industry, said it would begin the process this year to implement the cameras.

"Safety is our number one priority, and we have been working on a potential rulemaking for the past six months regarding the use of cameras on locomotives," railroad administration spokesman Kevin Thompson said in a statement to the Tribune.

The process could take months or even years, however, because the proposed rule first would have to come from a Federal Railroad Administration safety advisory committee. The agency also would have to open a public comment period in which railroads, unions and the public could weigh in on the proposal.

The decision would ultimately be up to agency Administrator Joseph Szabo.

Most U.S. railroads, including Metra, have already voluntarily installed outward-facing cameras to record events on the tracks in advance of trains.

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Videos from those cameras have captured scenes like the Oct. 23 derailment that occurred when a Metra train hit a semitrailer truck that had pulled onto the tracks in Bartlett.

Videos also have captured vehicles trying to beat trains through crossings or trespassers on tracks, some of them taunting engineers.

Metra said Monday it would comply with any Federal Railroad Administration rule to turn the cameras on its engineers. Metra would need to install the cameras on more than 500 pieces of equipment, including cab cars occupied by engineers when locomotives are pushing rather than pulling a train.

The Union Pacific Railroad, which operates three Metra routes, the UP North, Northwest and West lines, said it already has started installing inward-facing cameras on many of its locomotives.

The BNSF Railway, another Metra partner, is "observing" other railroads' use of cameras, a spokesman said.

The American Association of Railroads, a Washington-based industry organization, said it has taken no position on the issue and has left it up to the individual railroads.

The union that represents locomotive engineers, meanwhile, has rejected calls for putting cameras on its members and has fought the move in court.

"Installation of cameras will provide the public nothing more than a false sense of security," said Dennis Pierce, national president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said in a statement after the Metro-North derailment.

In 2009, the union filed a federal lawsuit against Los Angeles' Metrolink in an effort to remove the cameras from the commuter rail agency's locomotives.

The union contended that Metrolink had violated employees' rights by monitoring train engineers' activities. A U.S. district court dismissed the lawsuit, the NTSB said.

A Metrolink collision with a Union Pacific freight train occurred when a text-messaging engineer failed to stop at a red signal, federal investigators concluded.

In the 2005 Metra derailment, which killed two people and injured 117, the NTSB found that the probable cause was the engineer's "inattentiveness to signal indications and his failure to operate the train in accordance with the signal ... and speed restrictions" at the 48th Street crossover.

A similar Metra derailment occurred two years earlier at the same crossing, injuring 45 people. Federal investigators faulted the engineer in that crash for being distracted when his train hit the crossover.

Chicago attorney Tim Cavanaugh, who represented several victims in both the derailments, said that while having cameras focused on the engineers might not have prevented the accidents, the videos could have been a key investigative tool in determining the causes.

"There was overwhelming evidence that the engineers had made horrible mistakes," Cavanaugh said.

(c)2014 the Chicago Tribune