Railroad Safety--Responses to Posthearing Questions

GAO-07-610R: Published: Mar 15, 2007. Publicly Released: Mar 15, 2007.

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Katherine A. Siggerud
(202) 512-6570


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

This letter responds to a Congressional request that we provide responses to questions related to our recent testimony before Congress on reauthorizing federal rail safety programs. 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.

A number of FRA's current safety initiatives do rely to a great extent on voluntary actions by the 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. FRA estimates that it is able to inspect about 0.2 percent of railroad operations each year. 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. 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. 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. 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 efforts. 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 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. 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.

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