Rail Safety:

The Federal Railroad Administration Is Taking Steps to Better Target Its Oversight, but Assessment of Results Is Needed to Determine Impact

GAO-07-149: Published: Jan 26, 2007. Publicly Released: Jan 26, 2007.

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Since 1980, the train accident rate has improved significantly, but progress has leveled off over the past 10 years. Recent serious accidents--such as one in Graniteville, South Carolina, that led to 9 deaths and 292 injuries--elevated concerns. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) develops safety standards and inspects and enforces railroads' compliance with these standards. This report addresses how FRA (1) focuses its efforts on the highest priority risks related to train accidents in planning its oversight, (2) identifies safety problems on railroad systems in carrying out its oversight, and (3) assesses the impact of its oversight efforts on safety. To complete this work, GAO reviewed FRA regulations, planning and policy documents, and safety data. GAO also contacted FRA officials in headquarters and three regional offices and others.

In planning its safety oversight, FRA is focusing its efforts on the highest priority risks related to train accidents through initiatives aimed at addressing their main causes--human behaviors and defective track--as well as through improvements in its inspection planning approach. In its May 2005 National Rail Safety Action Plan, the overall strategy for targeting its oversight at the greatest risks, FRA provides a reasonable framework for guiding these efforts. Its initiatives to address the most common causes of accidents are promising, although the success of many of them will depend on voluntary actions by the railroads. In addition, the action plan outlined the agency's development of a new inspection planning approach. Under this approach, inspectors focus their efforts on locations that data-driven models indicate are most likely to have safety problems. In carrying out its safety oversight, FRA identifies a range of specific and broad-scale safety problems on railroad systems mainly by determining whether operating practices, track, and equipment are in compliance with minimum safety standards. However, FRA is able to inspect only about 0.2 percent of railroads' operations each year and its inspections do not examine how railroads are managing safety risks throughout their systems that could lead to accidents. Such an approach, as a supplement to traditional compliance inspections, is used in the oversight of U.S. commuter railroads and pipelines and of Canadian railroads. While this type of approach can provide additional assurance of safety, GAO is not recommending that FRA adopt it because its various initiatives to reduce the train accident rate have not yet had time to demonstrate their effects on safety. FRA uses a broad range of goals and measures to assess the impact of its oversight. For example, it has developed (1) new goals to target its inspection and enforcement programs at reducing various types of railroad accidents and (2) related measures to monitor its progress. These measures include the rate of train accidents caused by human behaviors, track defects, and equipment defects. However, FRA's ability to make informed decisions about these programs is limited because it lacks measures of their direct results, such as the correction of identified safety problems. Furthermore, FRA has not evaluated the effectiveness of its enforcement program.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In its April 2007 response, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) indicated that it concurred with this recommendation and planned to implement it. In January 2008, FRA officials provided an update, but their planned efforts did not fulfill the intent of our recommendation because they were focused on developing performance measures for a voluntary industry-wide risk management initiative rather than for the agency's inspection and enforcement programs. In following up again in June and August 2010, it became clear that FRA does not intend to develop new measures on inspection or enforcement results. FRA officials asked us to close this recommendation as "not implemented," explaining that developing new measures would not be feasible because of funding constraints and higher priority activities to address mandates in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. For example, travel funds are constrained, impacting the ability of inspectors to do follow-up inspections to determine if identified safety problems have been fixed.

    Recommendation: To enhance FRA's ability to determine the extent to which its inspection and enforcement programs are contributing to rail safety and whether changes in these programs are needed, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FRA to develop and implement measures of the direct results of its inspection and enforcement programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In January 2007, we recommended that the Secretary of Transportation direct the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to evaluate its enforcement program to provide further information on its results, the need for any additional data to measure and assess these results, and the need for any changes in this program to improve performance. In May 2010, FRA provided us with the results of an independent review of the effectiveness its use of civil penalties in enforcing railroad safety. Civil penalties are FRA's most commonly used enforcement tool. (For example, in our review we had found that, of the 9023 enforcement actions taken by the agency between January 2005 and July 2006, 8612 were civil penalties.) This review, conducted by the Ventura Group in 2009, fulfills our recommendation. Specifically, it provides information on the results of FRA's enforcement efforts and the data that is available to measure and assess these results. It does not identify the need for any changes in the enforcement program to improve performance because it concludes that FRA's safety program as a whole, including its use of civil penalties, is highly effective. This conclusion is based on improvements in train accident rates over time since the study found that it was not possible to measure the effects of individual civil penalties.

    Recommendation: To enhance FRA's ability to determine the extent to which its inspection and enforcement programs are contributing to rail safety and whether changes in these programs are needed, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FRA to evaluate the agency's enforcement program to provide further information on its results, the need for additional data to measure and assess these results, and the need for any changes in this program to improve performance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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