The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued its wish list for passenger and worker safety. If you are a railroad that doesn’t want to invest in safety, it's more like a hit list.
Every year for the last 23 years the federal agency has highlighted what it sees as the trending problems in transportation, and every year the railroad safety problems and the industry’s failure to address them, makes the list. You can see the complete NTSB list here. This year, half of them involve railroad transportation.
Railroads have spent decades getting special exemptions and treatment by the federal government. Do you know of any other government-sanctioned monopolies? It is time they use some of those profits and plow them into safety, passenger and worker, and worry a little less about shareholder dividends and executive bonuses.
Here are the five critical areas in railroad safety that the NTSB has called the railroad industry to address.
1. 45 Years is Too Long: Get Control of Your Trains and Implement Positive Train ControlOn August 20, 1969, two Penn Central commuter trains collided head-on near Darien, CT, killing four and injuring 43. That tragedy 45 years ago began the NTSB’s call for development and implementation of positive train control (PTC) systems. In 1970, the NTSB first addressed the need to require a form of automatic train control. Since then, the NTSB has issued almost 50 PTC-related safety recommendations and has included PTC on its Most Wanted List every year from its inception in 1990 until enactment of the RSIA. In the aftermath of a deadly 2008 Chatsworth collision, that killed 25 and injured another 102, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA), requiring all trains providing passenger service and freight trains operating on lines carrying toxic- and poisonous-by-inhalation hazardous materials to implement PTC by the end of 2015. In the words of the NTSB, “Railroads that will not meet the deadline to implement PTC should be accountable. Lives depend on it.”
2. Don’t Text While Driving Your Locomotive: Eliminate Distraction in TransportationThe same 2008 Chatsworth tragedy highlighted another of the NTSB’s Most Wanted: the effect of distraction on the safe operation of trains. The locomotive engineer was found to have been texting. The response needs to be both legal and social. The legal response needs to be in the form of penalties for distracted operation, whether rail or automobile. The FRA has already made personal electronic device use illegal during certain rail operations. But I have pictures of assistant superintendents using their cell phone while well within the envelope of active track, with no foul time in place. I admit to being part of the problem. I have certainly glanced at a text, or typed out a quick “Sitting in traffic, going to be about 30 minutes late.” I need to stop doing that. However, merely walking with a big stick won’t work. We also need to build a social infrastructure that dissuades distracted operations at all times, starting with new and existing drivers who are the agents of change, extending through their family and community support systems.
3. Assume There Will Be Crashes: Strengthen Occupant Protection in Transportation
In 2012 there were more than 35,000 deaths due to transportation accidents. It turns out, that many of these deaths could have been avoided by better design of the transportation itself, as well as better containment of passengers. NTSB accident investigations found that current passenger railcar designs lack adequate crashworthiness protection for occupants and operators. Railcars often lack sidewall crush strength to limit intrusion into occupant seating areas. Likewise, passenger railcars usually are built with large side windows, which can become safety hazards when they break or pop-out during an overturn accident
Another critical element to occupant protection is preserving survivable space when a crash occurs. In 2011, the NTSB investigated a highway-railroad grade crossing collision in Miriam, NV. That raised awareness of the role crashworthiness plays in protecting occupants. The crash caused a loss of occupant survivable space, resulting in death and serious injury. Regulators and manufacturers can make sure that future crashes are more survivable by designing railcars with improved crashworthiness that minimizes intrusion into and loss of occupant survivable space and keep occupants within the seating compartment.
Likewise, the NTSB studied the evolution of crashworthiness standards for passenger railcars and identified several engineering shortcomings in the current standards and regulations. The NTSB has made safety recommendations to the FRA to revise and improve these sidewall crashworthiness regulations. Additional efforts are ongoing with the Federal Transit Authority to encourage improvements in the engineering standards for transit railcars.
4. Save the Most Lives: Improve Fire Safety in Transportation
After noting the 2011 Amtrak fire following a highway grade crossing collision, and the absence of fire doors between train cars, the NTSB specifically asked for better fire suppression and containment equipment and procedures. These alone can give workers, passengers and emergency personnel critical extra minutes to respond to fire conditions, whether flame or smoke. In fact, “Fire suppression holds the greatest potential for saving lives, reducing costs, and minimizing damage.
5. It’s the People Who are Dangerous: Promote Operational Safety in Rail Mass Transit
2008-Chatsworth > 2009-Washington, DC > 2013-Bridgeport, CT > 2013-West Haven, CT > 2013-Sputyn Duyvil, NY. Those five commuter rail incidents alone resulted in over three dozen deaths and hundreds injured.
Of the most direct personal relevance to commuter railroad workers, the NTSB has formally recognized failures in what it calls organizational safety culture at the railroads. Based on years of investigating mass transit accidents, the NTSB has found an increase in accidents stemming from human issues, ranging from lapses in train operator’s judgment, through slow decision-making to inspect or repair track, to poor leadership by senior management to prioritize safety over operational timeliness. Click here for more info if you're a railroad worker who has been hurt as a result of this kind of human error. On the horizon is an increasing role of the Federal Transit Administration in the railroad universe. The most recent transportation reauthorization bill (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century or MAP-21) gives the FTA critical authority to set and enforce new safety standards and conduct investigations. Among those areas that the NTSB asks the FTA to consider are the elements of safety culture, crew resource management, fatigue risk management, and technology. According to the NTSB, “Identifying and implementing these will be key to saving lives and preventing injuries.”