Railroad Safety:

Continued Emphasis Needed for an Effective Track Safety Inspection Program

RCED-94-56: Published: Apr 22, 1994. Publicly Released: Apr 22, 1994.

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Pursuant to a legislative requirement, GAO reviewed the effectiveness of the Department of Transportation's (DOT) rail safety inspection and enforcement programs, focusing on the: (1) improvement the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has made in its track inspection program; and (2) implementation problems that still limit the effectiveness of track inspections.

GAO found that: (1) FRA has improved its track inspection program, and its strategy for correcting its weaknesses is sound; (2) to further strengthen rail safety, FRA needs to incorporate site-specific data on passenger and hazardous materials traffic in its inspection plan and improve the reliability of accident and injury data; (3) FRA has enhanced its daily oversight of track safety activities; (4) inspectors are applying track safety regulations and reporting track defects more consistently than before; (5) FRA does not always enforce its policy that inspectors review a railroad's compliance history before physically inspecting a track; (6) FRA faces a difficult challenge in revising the safety standards for excepted track; (7) track safety regulations do not allow FRA inspectors to write violations for excepted track and do not require railroads to fix cited defects; and (8) the number of reported accidents and cited defects on excepted track has increased, and FRA is concerned that railroads have abused the excepted track provision.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOT agreed to consider the recommendation when it prepared the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for revising the Track Safety Standards. However, DOT's final rule, published on June 22, 1998, does not require railroads to apply the excepted track rule only to track that meets the rule's original intent (track located on certain yard and little-used branch lines on comparatively level terrain and track located outside populated or residential areas).

    Recommendation: To strengthen the current regulations governing the excepted track provision and improve safety on excepted track, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FRA, to allow railroads to apply the excepted track rule only to track that meets the rule's original intent (track located on certain yard and little-used branch lines on comparatively level terrain and track located outside populated or residential areas).

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOT agreed to consider the recommendation when it prepared its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for revising the Track Safety Standards. However, DOT's final rule, published on June 22, 1998, does not require railroads to notify the Federal Railroad Administration when they have classified track segments as excepted.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the current regulations governing the excepted track provision and improve safety on excepted track, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FRA, to require railroads to notify FRA when they have classified track segments as excepted.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOT agreed to issue a technical bulletin that will remind inspection personnel about the extent to which they may rely on photocopied or electronic inspection reports. DOT further indicated that the technical bulletin will reemphasize the integral role of record reviews in the inspection process.

    Recommendation: To overcome the problems identified in the FRA rail safety inspection program and to ensure that the nation's railroad tracks are safe, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FRA, to clarify the extent to which photocopied or electronic inspection records constitute an acceptable basis for reviewing railroads' compliance history and writing defect or violation reports, and emphasize, through a technical bulletin, the importance of reviewing railroads' track inspection records before physically inspecting track.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOT provided track courses for 28 track inspectors in 1994.

    Recommendation: To overcome the problems identified in the FRA rail safety inspection program and to ensure that the nation's railroad tracks are safe, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FRA, to continue to fund training for track inspectors.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOT issued a final rule on Railroad Accident Reporting on June 18, 1996, that is intended to enhance the quality of information FRA collects pertaining to rail equipment accidents and incidents, as well as illnesses, injuries and casualties to railroad employees, passengers and other persons on railroad property. The rule requires railroads to adopt internal control procedures to ensure accurate reporting of accidents, and revises the method for calculating the accident reporting monetary threshold to allow for use of publicly available data and statistics. Also, the FRA administrator submitted a report to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees on August 14, 1995 that described how FRA is responding to the recommendations in this report.

    Recommendation: To overcome the problems identified in the FRA rail safety inspection program and to ensure that the nation's railroad tracks are safe, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FRA, to improve the reliability of National Inspection Plan data by: (1) establishing a pilot program in one FRA region to gather the data on the volume of passenger and hazardous materials traffic needed to complete the Regional Inspection Points (RIP) Program and correct the deficiencies in the accident and injury database; and (2) clarifying the role of the Automated Track Inspection Program vehicle and target its use to areas with limited federal or state inspector resources.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  6. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOT agreed to issue revised guidance to its inspectors once the Federal Railroad Administration completes the new Track Safety Standards. DOT, however, did not issue this guidance.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the current regulations governing the excepted track provision and improve safety on excepted track, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FRA, to provide guidance to track inspectors on options available when excepted track deficiencies constitute an imminent threat of derailment or another safety hazard.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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