Rail Transit:

Reliability of FTA's Rail Accident Database

GAO-11-217R: Published: Jan 31, 2011. Publicly Released: Jan 31, 2011.

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As Congress requested, we conducted a review of challenges associated with enhancing safety on major rail transit systems. During the course of that review, we assessed the quality of data that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) collects and maintains in its State Safety Oversight (SSO) Rail Accident Database. FTA, an agency within the Department of Transportation (DOT), collects these safety data, including data on types of accidents and causes, from SSO agencies and the rail transit agencies they oversee. FTA used the SSO Rail Accident Database to produce the agency's 2009 Rail Safety Statistics Report, which analyzed data from 2003 through 2008. Although we originally intended to report on safety trends using the SSO Rail Accident Database in the rail transit report, we determined that these data were not sufficiently reliable for such a purpose. As a result, in this review we further assess the SSO Rail Accident Database and FTA's processes for collecting and compiling the data. We determined that there are numerous inaccuracies in FTA's SSO Rail Accident Database and, consequently, the 2009 Rail Safety Statistics Report. FTA implemented changes to the data collection process over the past few years to address some of these issues. For example, FTA now requires SSO agencies to report incident specific information instead of aggregated or summary totals. In addition, FTA revised the definition of rail grade crossings to ensure consistent accident reporting by rail transit agencies, and now requests SSO agencies to provide unique incident tracking numbers to assist with data validation and prevention of duplicate entries. FTA is also working to validate and correct existing data in the SSO Rail Accident Database. Despite these changes, the SSO Rail Accident Database and the 2009 Rail Safety Statistics Report still include erroneous data. DOT is seeking legislative authority to directly regulate and enforce rail transit safety, in part on the basis of recent trends in accidents and injuries. There were several legislative proposals introduced during the 111th Congress to give FTA authority to establish safety regulations for rail transit agencies and, in cooperation with the states, oversee and enforce compliance by these rail transit agencies with these regulations. If FTA assumes greater oversight authority over rail transit agencies, accurate and reliable rail safety data will be critical. The purpose of this report is to convey our findings about how insufficient internal control over the entry and processing of rail transit safety data has negatively affected the reliability of the data contained in FTA's SSO Rail Accident Database and its 2009 Rail Safety Statistics Report.

Our analysis of the reliability of data contained in the SSO Rail Accident Database found data discrepancies, such as unverified and duplicative entries, as well as insufficient internal control. Consequently, FTA's 2009 Rail Safety Statistics Report, which focuses attention on safety issues in the public rail transit industry, and is intended to support FTA's mission to identify safety priorities and strategies to address industry concerns, includes unreliable data. This affects the accuracy of the statistics regarding rail transit safety, including those used for producing information on trends over time, which can be safety indicators to help guide FTA's safety oversight efforts. For example, data discrepancies may under or overstate accidents, injuries, fatalities, and property damage totals, among other things. FTA has implemented some changes to the data collection process and has begun to validate data and correct discrepancies contained in the SSO Rail Accident Database. However, FTA's validation proposal does not contain specific efforts to establish procedures that would improve data reporting in the future. We are making recommendations to DOT to help FTA improve internal control over the process used to obtain data from SSO agencies and ensure the accuracy and reliability of the SSO Rail Accident Database.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FTA to develop and implement appropriate internal control activities to ensure that the data entered into SSO agency reporting templates are accurate. To accomplish this, the Administrator should consider data entry design features to ensure consistency in reporting across rail transit agencies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FTA to incorporate appropriate internal control over the method used to review and reconcile SSO agency data with other data sources to better ensure accuracy and reliability of the SSO Rail Accident Database.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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