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March 15, 2007: 

The Honorable Corrine Brown:
Chairwoman, Subcommittee on Railroads,Pipelines, and Hazardous 
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure:
House of Representatives: 

Subject: Railroad Safety-Responses to Posthearing Questions: 

Dear Madam Chairwoman: 

This letter responds to your request that we provide responses to 
questions related to our recent testimony before your subcommittee on 
reauthorizing federal rail safety programs.[Footnote 1] Our testimony 
discussed how the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) (1) focuses its 
efforts on the highest priority risks related to train accidents in 
planning its oversight, (2) identifies safety problems on railroad 
systems in carrying out its oversight, and (3) assesses the impact of 
its oversight efforts on safety. This testimony was based on our recent 
report on these topics.[Footnote 2] Your questions, along with our 
responses, follow. 

1. You mention that the success of many of FRA's initiatives addressing 
the most common causes of accidents will depend on voluntary actions by 
the railroads. Why? Is FRA focusing too much on voluntary measures and 
not enough on mandating regulations? 

A number of FRA's current safety initiatives do rely to a great extent 
on voluntary actions by the railroads. For example, the close call 
reporting system[Footnote 3] will depend for its success on extensive 
participation by railroads. As we reported in January, one railroad has 
committed to participate in this pilot project in one rail yard, and, 
according to FRA, two others have expressed strong interest. In 
addition, FRA's efforts to develop a model to address the problem of 
worker fatigue depend on the extent to which railroads eventually use 
this model to improve train crew scheduling practices. Also, the agency 
emphasizes achieving compliance from railroads voluntarily and takes 
enforcement action only in a small percentage of cases of noncompliance 
found. We have not directly compared FRA's emphasis on voluntary 
actions with that of other modal administrations. For example, the 
Federal Aviation Administration has emphasized partnership with 
industry through programs that allow participants, such as airlines or 
pilots, to self-report violations of safety regulations and potentially 
mitigate or avoid civil penalties or other legal action. In the end, 
what is important is whether FRA is able to demonstrate, through the 
use of performance measures and evaluations of effectiveness, that its 
initiatives are effective in improving safety and are superior in terms 
of costs and benefits to other safety regulatory interventions. 

2. What percentage of railroad operations is FRA able to inspect each 

FRA estimates that it is able to inspect about 0.2 percent of railroad 
operations each year. See also the response to question 6 for a 
discussion of this issue and question 3 for an approach that could 
extend the reach of safety efforts. 

3. You state that FRA inspections are not designed to determine how 
well railroads are managing safety risks throughout their systems. What 
should FRA and its inspectors be doing differently? 

For the most part, FRA inspections determine whether railroads are 
complying with various safety standards, such as those related to track 
and equipment condition, and its inspections are targeted at locations 
where accidents have occurred or previous inspections have identified 
problems. A complementary approach to these compliance inspections is 
oversight of risk management, which can help to prevent accidents. Risk 
management can be described as a continuous process of managing-- 
through the systematic identification, analysis, and control of risks 
associated with such hazards--the likelihood of their occurrence and 
their negative impact.[Footnote 4] Oversight of risk management can 
provide additional assurance of safety beyond that provided by 
inspections of compliance with minimum safety standards. It can 
supplement uniform, minimum standards by encouraging or requiring 
companies to identify and address their unique safety risks. Risk 
management has been used in the private and public sectors for decades. 
For example, risk management approaches are being used for public 
transit and pipeline safety in the United States and for railroad 
safety in Canada, and the American Public Transportation Association, 
the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, and 
Transport Canada, respectively, oversee these approaches. While FRA has 
taken some steps in a limited number of areas to encourage risk 
management in the railroad industry, it does not oversee railroads' 
overall approach for managing safety risks on their systems. 

While we believe that adopting a comprehensive approach to overseeing 
railroads' management of safety risks can lead to improved safety, we 
did not recommend that FRA adopt such an approach. FRA is pursuing 
several initiatives aimed at reducing accident rates, and these 
initiatives need time to mature to demonstrate their effects. At the 
appropriate time, the agency may wish to determine whether additional 
actions are needed. 

4. In follow-up to some questions at the hearing, has GAO studied, 
determined, or in any way looked at whether the number of inspectors at 
the FRA is sufficient? 

We did not assess whether the number of FRA inspectors was sufficient, 
nor did we assess the degree to which state railroad inspections 
complement FRA's inspections. However, we did note that the number of 
these inspectors is quite small compared with the size of the industry. 
(According to FRA, its inspectors inspect about 0.2 percent of railroad 
operations each year.) 

As discussed both in our January 2007 report and in our testimony 
statement, the agency's implementation of its new inspection planning 
approach allows it to better target the greatest safety risks and 
therefore make more effective use of its inspector workforce. However, 
the agency's approach to conducting inspections focuses on determining 
compliance with minimum standards at specific sites visited. Oversight 
of railroads' management of safety risks throughout their systems could 
provide FRA with a greater "reach" and understanding of safety overall. 
However, we did not recommend that FRA adopt such an approach because 
its current initiatives to bring down the train accident rate need time 
to demonstrate their effects. 

5. How effective is FRA's safety program compared to the safety 
programs of other modal administrations? 

We did not attempt to compare the effectiveness of FRA's safety program 
to that of other modal administrations. Like other modal safety 
administrations that we have reviewed--the Federal Aviation 
Administration, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and 
the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration, FRA is relatively 
small compared to the industry it regulates. However, there are 
important differences among industries that would require careful study 
as part of any comparison of effectiveness. For example, the Federal 
Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulates about 677,000 commercial 
motor carriers, while FRA regulates fewer than 700 railroads. 

6. In your testimony, you state that FRA inspections cover only two-
tenths of one percent all railroad operations. Is this a large enough 
sample to accurately gauge safety in the railroad industry? 

This is a difficult question to answer because it would require an 
assessment of not only the absolute number of inspections and resulting 
problems found, but also the manner in which FRA is deploying its 
inspectors and any deterrent effect that FRA's inspections and 
enforcement actions might have. We are encouraged that, in 2005, FRA 
developed an overall strategy through its National Rail Safety Action 
Plan for targeting its oversight to areas of greatest risk. We believe 
that the action plan provides a reasonable framework for guiding these 

We also concluded that FRA needs to (1) do more to measure the direct 
results of its oversight, such as the extent to which identified safety 
problems are corrected, and (2) measure the effectiveness of its 
enforcement program. We made recommendations to this effect and are 
looking forward to FRA's response. Finally, as discussed earlier (see 
our response to question 3), adopting a risk management framework could 
expand the reach of FRA's inspection and enforcement programs. 

7. In your testimony, you state that the FRA does not oversee 
railroads' management of safety risk, while many other agencies do. 
Would such oversight improve the safety of railroad operations? Are 
there any models that the FRA should look at to implement its own 

See the response to question 3 for a discussion of this issue. 

8. What should the FRA do to improve its safety enforcement program? 

We found that FRA cannot demonstrate how its inspection and enforcement 
efforts are contributing to rail safety and that FRA lacks key 
information, such as measures of the direct results of these efforts, 
that could help it improve performance. While such measures are not 
always easy to develop, at least two other modal administrations within 
the department--the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the 
Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration--have done so. 
Coupled with better measures of FRA's direct results is the need to 
assess the effectiveness of its enforcement approach, especially its 
use of civil penalties, to understand the degree to which they 
contribute to improved safety outcomes and to determine whether it 
should adjust its approach to improve performance. We recommended that 
FRA (1) develop and implement direct measures of its inspection and 
enforcement programs and (2) evaluate its enforcement program to 
provide further information on the program's results and the need for 
any changes to improve performance. 

9. Based on the small sample of railroad operations that the FRA 
inspects, and how it inspects them, do you believe that the FRA is in a 
position to say if the railroads are safe or not? 

See our response to question 6 for a discussion of this topic. 

10. In your testimony, you state that the FRA efforts to improve safety 
will depend on voluntary action by railroads. Is voluntary action 
sufficient to improve safety? 

See our response to question 1 for a discussion of this issue. 

11. States can play an important role in assisting FRA with ensuring 
safety along the rail lines. Unfortunately, FRA has been reluctant to 
allow states to regulate the railroads in order to provide a safe 
environment for their residents. What role do you feel states should 
play in assisting with railroad safety and regulation? 

As we noted in our January 2007 report, 30 state oversight agencies 
participate in a partnership program with FRA to conduct safety 
oversight activities at railroads' operating sites. About 160 state 
inspectors work with FRA to conduct inspections and other investigative 
and surveillance activities as needed. These inspectors are an 
important supplement to FRA's 400 inspectors, since the size of the 
railroad industry is quite large. FRA officials have told us that the 
agency does not provide funding for state inspection activities (except 
for training and computer equipment) and therefore does not have 
authority to tell states what inspections to conduct. FRA's regional 
offices do coordinate inspection activities with participating states 
in their region. 

Our work focused on FRA's activities. We did not assess potential and 
actual states' roles or FRA's efforts to encourage state participation. 
If a larger role is envisioned for states, several questions would have 
to be addressed, including (1) the goals for state participation (e.g., 
increased safety levels to be achieved), (2) how federal and state 
efforts would complement each other, (3) what inspection and 
enforcement authority (e.g., to cite violations) would be allowed; and 
(4) who would pay for any increase in state inspection presence. 

We are making copies of this letter available to others upon request 
and it will be available at no charge on the GAO Web site at If you have any questions about its content, please 
contact me at (202) 512-2834 or Contact points for 
our offices of Congressional Relations and Public Affairs may be found 
on the last page of this letter. Key contributors to this letter were 
Judy Guilliams-Tapia and James Ratzenberger. 

Sincerely yours, 

Signed by: 

Katherine A. Siggerud: 
Director, Physical Infrastructure Issues: 



[1] GAO, Rail Safety: The Federal Railroad Administration Is Better 
Targeting Its Oversight, but Needs to Assess the Impact of Its Efforts, 
GAO-07-390T (Washington, D.C.: Jan. 30, 2007). 

[2] GAO, The Federal Railroad Administration Is Taking Steps to Better 
Target Its Oversight, but Assessment of Results Is Needed to Determine 
Impact, GAO-07-149 (Washington, D.C.: Jan. 26, 2007). 

[3] According to FRA, a close call represents a situation in which an 
ongoing sequence of events was stopped from developing further, 
preventing the occurrence of potentially serious safety-related 

[4] A framework for risk management based on industry best practices 
and other criteria that we have developed divides risk management into 
five major phases: (1) setting strategic goals and objectives, and 
determining constraints; (2) assessing risks; (3) evaluating 
alternatives for addressing these risks; (4) selecting the appropriate 
alternatives; and (5) implementing the alternatives and monitoring the 
progress made and the results achieved. See pages 35-39 of GAO-07-149 
for further discussion.