Rail Safety:

Improved Human Capital Planning Could Address Emerging Safety Oversight Challenges

GAO-14-85: Published: Dec 9, 2013. Publicly Released: Dec 9, 2013.

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What GAO Found

The Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) rail-safety oversight framework relies on inspections to ensure railroads comply with federal safety regulations. FRA inspects railroad infrastructure and operations, identifies safety defects, and may, if warranted, cite the railroads for violations of federal safety regulations. The agency estimates that its inspectors have the ability to annually inspect less than 1 percent of the railroad activities covered in regulation. As a result, railroads have the primary responsibility for safety of the railroad system. To formulate regulations, FRA instituted the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee, a forum for FRA, the railroads, rail labor organizations, and other stakeholders to arrive at a consensus on proposed rules. Thirty states partner with FRA in providing FRA-certified railroad safety inspectors who are also authorized to enforce federal safety regulations. Finally, many railroads have additional safety programs, rules, and technologies to ensure safety beyond the required federal standards.

FRA has developed a risk-based approach to direct its inspection efforts, but the agency has been slow to implement broader risk reduction planning. FRA has two tools to help direct its inspection efforts--the National Inspection Plan (NIP) and the Staffing Allocation Model (SAM). The NIP process uses past accident and other data to target FRA's inspection activities, and the SAM estimates the best allocation of the different types of inspectors across FRA regions in order to minimize damage and casualties from rail accidents. However, all eight FRA regional administrators expressed concerns about FRA's staffing process that relies primarily on the SAM to predict appropriate regional inspector needs, and that does not allow the flexibility needed to accommodate the regions' changing resource needs. In addition, the Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008 mandated safety risk reduction plans primarily for large freight and passenger railroads. FRA has not yet issued the final rule directing railroads to develop the plans, which was mandated to be issued by October 2012. According to FRA, the rulemaking was delayed due to concerns by railroads over their potential liability. Although FRA anticipates completing approval of railroad's plans by 2016, the agency has not developed an interim plan with specific timeframes to ensure that there are no further delays in issuing regulations and that timely evaluation and approval of the railroads' risk reduction plans occurs.

FRA faces several rail safety challenges, including how it will: (1) implement its oversight of positive train control (PTC), a technology designed to prevent certain types of rail accidents caused by human factors, and risk reduction plans; (2) adjust to changing rail traffic flows; and (3) ensure it has enough inspectors for its current and future oversight workload, as FRA expects 30 percent of field safety staff will be eligible to retire in 5 years. While FRA has long-term rail safety goals, its ability to meet those goals and respond to challenges is hampered by its lack of a strategic human capital plan. FRA officials stated that due to uncertainties about their budget, PTC implementation, and risk reduction plans, they plan for human capital needs in their annual budget request, rather than through a strategic human capital plan. However, without a plan, FRA may not make well-informed decisions about its workforce needs including having inspectors with the right skills for its current oversight activities and enough specialists to oversee the rail industry's implementation of PTC and safety risk reduction plans.

Why GAO Did This Study

Railroad accidents pose significant safety risks to railroads, their employees, passengers, and the public. FRA oversees safety of the nation's railroads. In light of three high profile accidents in 2012 involving fatalities or hazardous materials, GAO was asked to review FRA's oversight processes and the challenges to railroad safety. This report examines (1) the overall framework that FRA, the states, and the railroads use to ensure rail safety; (2) the extent to which FRA and the railroads assess safety risks and allocate resources to address those risks; and (3) what challenges, if any, exist to FRA's current safety framework, and what ongoing and emerging issues FRA faces. GAO analyzed FRA accident and incident data, reviewed the analytical models FRA uses to incorporate risk into its inspection program, and interviewed FRA headquarters and field safety staff, officials from the 7 largest freight railroads and 11 smaller railroads, industry associations and 7 rail labor organizations.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that FRA develop (1) a plan for finalizing its rulemaking and interim steps to implement its oversight of safety risk reduction programs, and (2) a strategic human capital plan that identifies and prioritizes FRA’s human capital needs, links them to FRA’s strategic goals and objectives, and includes approaches for how FRA will recruit, train, and retain inspectors and its new workforce of PTC and safety risk management specialists. DOT agreed to consider the recommendations and provided technical and other comments, which were incorporated as appropriate.

For more information, contact Susan Fleming at (202) 512-2834 or flemings@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2013, GAO reported that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) rail-safety oversight framework relies on inspections to ensure railroads comply with federal safety regulations. FRA has developed a risk-based approach to help direct its inspection efforts, but the agency has been slow to implement broader risk reduction planning. The Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA) mandated safety risk reduction plans primarily for large freight and passenger railroads. The development of this risk reduction approach to oversight is intended to augment FRA's current inspection regime and is a significant departure from FRA's traditional compliance-driven approach. However, FRA has not yet issued the final rule directing railroads to develop the plans, which, under RSIA, was to be issued by October 2012. According to FRA, the rulemaking was delayed due to concerns by railroads over their potential liability. Although FRA anticipates completing approval of railroad's plans by 2016, the agency has not developed an interim plan with specific timeframes to direct and manage the implementation of its risk reduction program to prevent further delays. Developing a plan is important because this is the first time that FRA has overseen risk management at a system level and a plan that outlines times frames and implementation steps could help FRA identify the risks associated with starting this new program. Therefore, GAO recommended that FRA develop an implementation plan for its oversight of risk reduction programs for passenger and freight railroads that included interim milestones for finalizing its rulemaking and milestones for the review and approval of the railroad's plans. In 2015, GAO confirmed that FRA had developed implementation plans for both passenger and freight railroads that included interim milestones for finalizing their rulemaking and review and approval of railroads' risk reduction plans. With these plans, FRA is better positioned to manage the implementation of this new program to avoid further delays in issuing the regulations and to ensure the timely evaluation and approval of the railroads' risk reduction plans when they are developed.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the Federal Railroad Administration timely and effectively implements oversight of railroad risk reduction programs, manages its limited resources, and accounts for the evolving rail safety environment, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration to develop an implementation plan for oversight of risk reduction programs for passenger and freight railroads, including interim milestones for finalizing its rulemaking and milestones for the review and approval of the plans.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2013, GAO reported that Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) faces several ongoing and emerging challenges to its rail-safety oversight framework. These challenges include (1) implementing its oversight of positive train control (PTC), (2) adjusting to changing rail traffic flows, and (3) ensuring it has enough inspectors for its current and future oversight workload. While FRA has long-term rail safety goals, its ability to meet those goals and respond to challenges is hampered by its lack of a strategic human capital plan. FRA officials stated that due to uncertainties about their budget, PTC implementation, and risk reduction plans, they plan for human capital needs in their annual budget request, rather than through a strategic human capital plan. FRA is facing some difficulty in recruiting, training, and certifying qualified inspectors in a timely manner. In addition, FRA must compete with the railroad industry for qualified inspectors to support the FRA's existing rail safety oversight framework as well as for new safety specialists to oversee railroads' implementation of their safety risk reduction plans and new PTC systems. The uncertainty FRA faces regarding its future budgets in light of these human capital challenges underscores the need for FRA to focus and plan how it will recruit, train, deploy and retain its workforce to meet these challenges. Without a strategic human capital plan, FRA may not make well-informed decisions about its workforce needs including having inspectors with the right skills for its current oversight activities and enough specialists to oversee the rail industry's implementation of PTC and safety risk reduction plans. Therefore, GAO recommended that FRA should develop a strategic human capital plan that identified and prioritized FRA's human capital needs and link them to FRA's strategic goals and objectives, and include specific approaches for how FRA recruit, train and retain rail safety inspectors and its new workforce of PTC and safety risk management specialists. In 2014, GAO confirmed that FRA has created and is in the process of implementing a strategic human capital plan which links to FRA's strategic goals and objectives and specifies how FRA will recruit, train and retain rail safety inspectors, including those for positive train control and risk management. As a result, the plan will enable FRA to better align its strategic rail-safety goals and objectives with its limited resources to meet these human capital challenges. In addition, the plan will demonstrate to stakeholders that FRA is proactively meeting its challenges and provide greater assurance that FRA is prioritizing it resources to mitigate the largest rail-safety oversight risks and better prevent rail accidents.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the Federal Railroad Administration timely and effectively implements oversight of railroad risk reduction programs, manages its limited resources, and accounts for the evolving rail safety environment, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration to develop a strategic human capital plan that identifies and prioritizes FRA's human capital needs and links them to FRA's strategic goals and objectives. This plan should include specific approaches for how FRA will recruit, train, and retain both its current inspectors as well as its new workforce of PTC and safety risk management specialists.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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