Rail Transportation:

Federal Railroad Administration's New Approach to Railroad Safety

RCED-97-142: Published: Jul 23, 1997. Publicly Released: Aug 22, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed operational and safety trends in the railroad industry, focusing on how the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has responded to these trends by developing a new partnering approach for improving safety on the nation's rail lines.

GAO noted that: (1) railroad safety has improved significantly over the past 20 years; (2) reported accident and injury rates are down 70 and 74 percent, respectively, from 1976 levels; (3) railroad industry representatives attribute the reductions to improvements made to the railroads' plant and equipment; (4) however, labor representatives expressed concern that, despite this progress, heavier loads and increased traffic may adversely affect rail safety in the future; (5) rail safety data indicate that the progress in reducing accidents has slowed in recent years; (6) while preliminary data for 1996 show improvements in key safety statistics, about 1,000 people die each year as a result of grade-crossing accidents and trespassing, 11,000 railroad employees are injured, and thousands of people are evacuated from their homes as a result of the hazardous materials that are 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 using violations and civil penalties as the primary means to obtain compliance with railroad safety regulations, FRA has emphasized 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 the preliminary data for 1996 show improvements, 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 has allocated fewer resources to responding to concerns about the level of workplace injuries for railroad employees and railroad bridge safety.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In August 1999, FRA initiated an Operating Practices Accident/Injury Prevention Action Plan to reduce human-factor-caused train accidents/incidents, and to increase train and engine service employee awareness of such accidents/incidents and related circumstances. The project, was phased into the regions in 1999 and was incorporated into FRA's ongoing activities. First, headquarters staff review, analyze and summarize calendar year 1998 and 1999 human factor accidents and train/engine employee fatalities assigned by FRA for investigation. The information is then distributed to operating practices inspectors, railroad officials, and employees to use as a mechanism for discussing questionable job procedures, operating and safety rules, and plausible remedial action. FRA field staff now develop inspection plans focused on problem areas, conduct team inspections based on the plan, and conduct follow-up reviews to check on the implementation of safety measures.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FRA, to, in cooperation with the industry, where appropriate, analyze injury data collected under the revised reporting requirements to determine the workplace safety issues that lead to the most numerous or the most serious injuries.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has historically provided guidance for safety and health issues associated with any industrial workplace, including railroads. Therefore, FRA indicated it would limit its consideration of workplace safety regulations to areas related specifically to train operations. FRA issued a Safety Advisory on June 16, 1999, regarding safe operating practices of railroad employees working beneath railroad equipment. FRA has used data gathered to address workplace safety problems in train yards, where such incidents are most prevalent. FRA has been working with the railroads to improve the railroads' own operating practices guidelines. In addition, FRA has used workplace safety data to support rulemakings already underway. However, FRA has not initiated any additional rulemakings as a result of data analyses.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FRA, to, in cooperation with the industry, where appropriate, in areas where efforts to obtain voluntary corrective action do not address the causes of these injuries, consider developing regulations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FRA officials said that the agency uses appropriate mechanisms to ensure that a finding of potential structural problems on a bridge is properly addressed by the bridge owner. However, FRA has not made any changes in its procedures to address GAO's recommendation and has indicated that it does not intend to take any action. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) does not believe certain aspects of FRA's bridge safety program are effective. In August 1998, the NTSB concluded that the lack of minimum standards for special inspection procedures for bridges that would be at risk during severe weather contributed to the August 1997 Amtrak accident near Kingman, Arizona. More recently, in March 1999, the DOT Office of Inspector General found that FRA needs to improve monitoring of railroad bridge programs and that training track inspectors received on the principles and practices of railroad bridge inspection was not detailed enough to enable them to perform bridge inspections.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FRA, to, in cooperation with the industry, where appropriate, use appropriate mechanisms, including the Safety Assurance and Compliance Program, to ensure that a finding of potential structural problems on a bridge is properly addressed by the bridge owner.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation


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