Safety in Public Transportation by Rail

By Georgetta Gregory

If you are one of the millions of Americans who ride public transportation to and from work or for recreational purposes you expect and deserve the safest trip possible.

NTSB Chief, Railroad Division Georgetta Gregory at BNSF facility The good news is, you’re already safer on mass transit than you would be in a motor vehicle. But an accident in mass transportation has the potential to claim many lives, and it can be made safer, as we have learned through NTSB investigations.

After 30 years in the railroad industry, I began working with rail fixed guide way systems – or rail transit – safety oversight, and public transportation systems. I found system safety principles to be the foundation on which rail transit systems build safe transportation.

These principles include safety certification of new projects and system safety program plans to outline how each individual system executes its safety program. The industry is now moving towards safety management systems to further enhance safety and hazard management.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) required through regulation found at 49 Code of Federal Regulation Part 659 that each state designate an agency responsible for state safety oversight of rail transit systems that receive federal funding.

While the system safety approach is effective in ensuring solid safety principles, it can be improved upon. By contrast, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) takes a much more prescriptive approach at the federal level.

In 2012, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP21,) granted the FTA authority to set minimum safety standards, and requires defined safety management at the national and individual system level. That gives the FTA authority to make sure that safety standards on your commute are as high as for a commute in another system in another state.

Congress took this action to improve safety culture after a catastrophic accident in 2009 that killed nine, in which the NTSB investigation identified a lack of safety culture leading to deterioration in infrastructure, maintenance, and operational controls.

Last week, I got to visit to a few companies in the rail industry that are hard at work to develop and maintain their safety cultures. Company leaders frequently echoed that safety is the number-one priority.

At BNSF Railway, the NTSB team trip focused on our advocacy for safer tank cars and enhanced railroad safety and risk management. One concern is that commuter rail trains share track with freight trains, including crude oil unit trains and other hazardous materials.

Having various speeds on the same tracks poses one difficulty, requiring redundant safety steps to keep the trains on track. One interesting BNSF innovation is the use of motor vehicle “DriveCams” to monitor highway vehicle and hi-rail drivers and operators, keeping them accountable against dangers such as distractions.

Another approach our team found interesting is BNSF’s concept of “Approaching Others About Safety.” This approach blends well with accountability and “being our brother’s and sister’s keeper.” A robust safety culture demands that all employees work together to reduce injuries and fatalities – not only to each other, but to employees themselves.

New laws and policies are only the beginning, and more needs to be done. There is no “end of the line” in safety, only the next station. That’s why last year the NTSB placed rail mass transit on our Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements, and why we addressed it again in our 2015 Most Wanted list, under Make Mass Transit Safer.

Georgetta Gregory is the Chief, Railroad Division in the Office Rail, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Investigations

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