Working on the Rails

By Debbie Hersman

NTSB Investigators at rail accidentWhether you are taking the subway two stops or Amtrak across the country this holiday season, think about the workers who keep the trains running. And remember those who won’t be coming home for Christmas this year.

Today, the NTSB issued urgent recommendations intended to protect track workers from their own trains. This was in response to our ongoing investigation into the deaths of two track workers in the San Francisco area in October, (as well as several other investigations on properties from Washington, D.C. to Boston).

When the two workers were struck and killed on October 19 in Walnut Creek, Calif., BART used a “simple approval” process to authorize employees to enter the train roadway. This simple process put the burden on workers to look out for trains and “provide their own protection and not interfere with mainline/yard operations.” BART has since eliminated the practice.

The NTSB recommendations strongly urge the FTA to issue directives to all transit agencies to improve the safety protections for roadway workers. The first recommendation asks FTA to require redundant protection for railway right-of-way workers such as positive train control, secondary warning devices, or the use of a shunt—a safety device that workers attach to rails that results in approaching trains receiving a stop signal. The second recommendation urges a directive to require transit agencies to review wayside worker rules and procedures to eliminate any work authorization that depends solely on the roadway worker to provide protection from trains and moving equipment.

The BART workers were not the first – and won’t be the last– track workers to be killed. Since 2006, the NTSB has investigated three fatal events on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, another involving fatalities on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, and earlier this year a fatal accident involving a track worker for Metro-North Railroad.

Other industries have redundant protections for their workers, such as fall protection for those working above the ground and lock-out/tag-out protections for those working with high energy sources.

Having redundant protection measures in place for track workers is not only a best practice but common sense. After all, a positive safety culture is not a solo act.

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