Rail Transportation:

Federal Railroad Administration's Safety Programs

T-RCED-98-178: Published: May 20, 1998. Publicly Released: May 20, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed operational and safety trends in the rail industry over the past 20 years and how the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has revised its rail safety program to address these trends.

GAO noted that: (1) the railroad industry has changed significantly since the Staggers Rail Act of 1980 made it federal policy that railroads would rely, where possible, on competition and the demand for services, rather than on regulation, to establish reasonable rates; (2) from 1976 to 1998, mergers and acquisitions have significantly reduced the number of class I freight railroads; (3) these larger railroads have cut costs, increased the tonnage their trains carry, downsized their workforces, and eliminated, sold, or abandoned thousands of miles of unprofitable or little-used track; (4) during this same period, overall railroad safety has improved; (5) reported accident and fatality rates are down 75 and 36 percent, respectively, from 1976 levels; (6) despite this progress, each year about 1,000 people die as a result of grade-crossing accidents and trespassing, at least 9,000 railroad employees are injured, and thousands of people are evacuated from their homes because of hazardous materials released during train accidents; (7) FRA instituted an important shift in its safety program in 1993 to address safety problems in the rail industry; (8) rather than continuing to use violations and civil penalties as the primary means to obtain compliance with railroad safety regulations, FRA decided to emphasize cooperative partnerships with other federal agencies, railroad management, labor unions, and the states; (9) the partnering efforts generally focus on the nation's larger railroads and have resulted in FRA inspectors' conducting fewer site-specific inspections of the railroad industry overall; (10) while 1996 and preliminary 1997 data, the latest data available, show improvements in safety, it is too early to determine if FRA's new approach will sustain a long-term decline in accidents and fatalities; and (11) in addition, FRA's new partnering efforts do not systematically respond to concerns about the level of workplace injuries for railroad employees and about the safety of railroad bridges.

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