Rail Safety:

Federal Railroad Administration Should Report on Risks to the Successful Implementation of Mandated Safety Technology

GAO-11-133: Published: Dec 15, 2010. Publicly Released: Jan 14, 2011.

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Positive train control (PTC) is a communications-based train control system designed to prevent some serious train accidents. Federal law requires passenger and major freight railroads to install PTC on most major routes by the end of 2015. Railroads must address other risks by implementing other technologies. The Department of Transportation's (DOT) Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) oversees implementation of these technologies and must report to Congress in 2012 on progress in implementing PTC. As requested, this report discusses railroads' progress in developing PTC and the remaining steps to implement it, the benefits of and challenges in implementing other safety technologies, and the extent of FRA's efforts to fulfill the PTC mandate and encourage the implementation of other technologies. To conduct this work, GAO analyzed documents and interviewed FRA and rail industry officials. GAO also interviewed and surveyed rail experts.

The four largest freight railroads and Amtrak have made progress in developing PTC and are preparing for implementation, but there is a potential for delays in completing the remaining sequence of steps to implement PTC in time for the 2015 deadline. For example, although railroads have worked with suppliers to develop some PTC components, the software needed to test and operate these components remains under development. As a result, it is uncertain whether components will be available when needed, which could create subsequent delays in testing and installing PTC equipment. Additionally, publicly funded commuter railroads may have difficulty in covering the $2 billion that PTC is estimated to cost them, which could create delays if funding for PTC is not available or require that railroads divert funding from other critical areas, such as maintenance. The uncertainties regarding when the remaining steps to implement PTC can be completed, as well as the related costs, raise the risk that railroads will not meet the implementation deadline, delaying the safety benefits of PTC. Additionally, other critical needs may go unmet if funding is diverted to pay for PTC. Other technologies hold promise for preventing or mitigating accidents that PTC would not address, but face implementation challenges. Experts identified technologies to improve track inspection, locomotives and other rail vehicles, and switches as having promise to provide additional safety. But challenges to implementing these technologies include their costs, uncertainty about their effectiveness, regulations that could create disincentives to using certain technologies, and lack of interoperability with existing systems and equipment. For example, electronically controlled pneumatic brakes are a promising technology to improve safety by slowing or stopping trains faster, but are expensive and not compatible with some common train operations. FRA has taken actions to fulfill the PTC mandate and has the opportunity to provide useful information on risks and mitigation strategies to Congress in its 2012 report. FRA has developed PTC regulations, hired new staff to monitor implementation of PTC, and created a grant program to provide funding to railroads. Going forward, as it monitors railroads' progress, FRA will have additional information for determining whether the risks previously discussed are significant enough to jeopardize successful implementation of PTC by the 2015 deadline. Prior GAO reports have noted that the identification of risks and strategies to mitigate them can help ensure the success of major projects. Including such information in FRA's 2012 report would help Congress determine whether additional actions are needed to ensure PTC is implemented successfully. Additionally, FRA's actions to encourage the implementation of other rail safety technologies align with some, but not all, best practices for such efforts. For example, FRA has followed the best practice of involving the industry early in developing new technologies, but it does not monitor the industry's use of technologies that it helped develop. Monitoring and reporting on the industry's adoption of new technologies could help the agency better demonstrate the results of its efforts. GAO recommends that the Secretary of Transportation direct DOT's Administrator of FRA to (1) include in its 2012 report to Congress information about PTC implementation risks and strategies to mitigate them and (2) monitor and report on the adoption of other technologies supported by the agency's efforts. DOT reviewed a draft of this report, provided technical comments, and said it would consider the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2010 we reported that freight railroads and Amtrak had made progress in developing Positive Train Control (PTC), a communications-based train control system designed to prevent some serious train accidents. Federal law required major freight and passenger railroads to implement PTC on most major routes by the end of 2015. However, we noted that delays in developing some components of the system and costs that publicly funded commuter railroads would incur to implement the system raised the risk that railroads would not meet the 2015 deadline, delaying the safety benefits of PTC. We recommended that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), to support the effective identification and mitigation of risks to the successful fulfillment of PTC requirements by 2015, include in its required 2012 report to Congress an analysis of the likelihood that railroads will meet the PTC implementation deadline; the risks to successful implementation of PTC; and actions Congress, railroads, or other stakeholders can take to mitigate risks to successful PTC implementation. In August 2012, FRA issued its report to Congress on railroads' progress implementing PTC. This report acknowledged the issues we raised in our December 2010 report on PTC implementation. FRA's report included 1) an assessment stating that it was unlikely most railroads would be able to complete PTC implementation by the mandated 2015 deadline; 2) a discussion of the technical and programmatic obstacles to successful PTC implementation; and 3) recommendations to the Congress on factors to consider in legislation to help address the identified obstacles. As a result, Congress will be better informed about risks to the successful implementation of PTC in considering potential legislative changes to the PTC mandate, which could include changes to the deadline and implementation requirements.

    Recommendation: To support the effective identification and mitigation of risks to the successful fulfillment of PTC requirements by 2015, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FRA to include in FRA's 2012 report to Congress an analysis of (1) the likelihood that railroads will meet the PTC implementation deadline; (2) the risks to successful implementation of PTC; and (3) actions Congress, railroads, or other stakeholders can take to mitigate risks to successful PTC implementation.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In its May 2011 response, the Department of Transportation (DOT) states that it concurs with the recommendation. The letter states that DOT's Federal Railroad Administration strives to monitor the implementation and effectiveness of safety technologies developed by its Office of Research and Development and that this office plans to continue to improve its methods for monitoring and reporting information on the adoption of safety technologies. We will follow-up on these efforts in the summer of 2013 to determine the extent to which they fulfill our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To better encourage the implementation of rail safety technologies other than PTC, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FRA to develop and implement a method for monitoring and reporting information on the adoption of technologies supported by FRA's R&D efforts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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