Improve Rail Worker Safety

By Member Tom Chapman

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the railroad industry have recently implemented new protections to make rail passenger travel and hazardous materials transportation safer. That’s great news. However, the NTSB anticipates more accidents involving passengers and the public until our safety recommendations regarding rail worker safety are implemented. Members of train crews, maintenance-of-way employees, and mechanical workers continue to be killed or injured in preventable accidents involving train or equipment movement.

Several rail workers have been struck in recent years while conducting routine maintenance, inspection, or switching operations. Other workers are vulnerable because cars carrying hazardous materials are too close to the operating cabs carrying train crew. Although rail worker fatalities have declined overall in recent years, we continue to see some recurring safety issues in our accident investigations, highlighting the need for better worker protections. Below are a few recent examples.

  • On June 10, 2017, Long Island Rail Road train 7623 approached a five-member roadway crew working on another track at the interlocking in Queens Village, New York. The foreman and three workers were inspecting and making minor repairs, and a fifth roadway worker, a lookout, was clear of the tracks, keeping pace. The lookout sounded a handheld horn, yelled at the others, and raised a disc that told the locomotive engineer to sound the train’s horn, which he did. Unfortunately, the foreman still stepped into the path of the train and was killed. The probable cause of the accident was the decision to use a train approach warning (TAW) system to protect the roadway workers on active tracks.
  • On January 17, 2017, a westbound BNSF Railway train, traveling at 35 mph, struck and killed two roadway workers, including the watchman/lookout, in Edgemont, South Dakota. The roadway work group had been cleaning snow and ice from the track switch on the main track to prepare to move a train that was to have its air brake system tested. The crew of the striking train sounded the horn and bell and applied emergency braking; however, there was no response from the roadway work group. The probable cause of this accident was the BNSF Railway roadway work group’s improper use of a TAW to provide on-track safety.
  • In several accidents, separating cars carrying hazardous materials from cars carrying crew members has been an issue, as has been the placement of DOT-111 tank cars in trains with other cars carrying flammable liquids, as I’ll describe in more detail below.

Roadway Workers

To better protect roadway workers (those who maintain the track), the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) implemented Roadway Worker Protection Regulations in 1997. However, since then, more than 50 roadway workers have been killed on the job. Meanwhile, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has yet to establish any specific regulations regarding roadway worker protection.

Many of the accidents we’ve investigated have also involved train approach warning systems, which are vulnerable to human errors like miscalculating site distance and generally underestimating the time needed for workers to clear tracks. We have long been concerned with the risks of using this method as the primary form of worker protection, especially because it lacks safety redundancy. Trains travel at deceptively high speeds, and without proper warning, workers may not have enough time to react. Methods of on-track safety that keep trains and other equipment away from workers provide a higher level of protection than TAW systems, which require workers to clear the tracks prior to the arrival of trains and equipment.

Another recurrent issue that we see in our investigations involves training and scheduling practices. Industry needs to ensure that job briefings are done correctly and that procedures are in place to audit those briefings. Additionally, watchmen/lookouts should receive proper training and have the required equipment. Railroads and transit agencies must develop work schedules and limitations based on science to prevent fatigued workers from being eligible to work overtime.

Operations and Mechanical Crews

Like roadway workers, operations crews and mechanical workers have also been killed in preventable accidents. One issue requiring attention is spacing between train crews and rail cars carrying hazardous materials. Although the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA) requires buffer cars between train crews and hazardous materials, the agency has also issued a regulatory interpretation that provides for a much shorter—and less safe—distance between hazardous materials and train crews. We believe PHMSA needs to withdraw its regulatory interpretation so railroads will be required to implement a minimum of five cars as a buffer between train crews and highly hazardous flammable material, at least until PHMSA determines the appropriate separation distance to keep train crews safe.

The Role of Regulators

Because so much in railroad safety is driven by the regulators—the FRA, the FTA, and PHMSA—they are in the best position to make change. Regulators should act expeditiously on our recommendations to establish adequate roadway worker and operations crew protections. Addressing these issues will help to ensure more preventable worker deaths are avoided.

The Role of Industry

Meanwhile, it isn’t necessary for industry to wait to protect workers. Improving training for watchmen/lookouts, for example, and more comprehensive briefings will help prevent accidents. Individual railroad workers, whether roadway workers, mechanical employees, or train crews, can learn more by reviewing NTSB railroad accident reports.

Learn More

Improve Rail Worker Safety

Long Island Rail Road Roadway Worker Fatality
Queens Village, NY | June 2017

BNSF Railway Roadway Worker Fatalities
Edgemont, SD | January 2017

Using Technology to Protect Maintenance-of-Way Employees, Amtrak/Backhoe Collision
Chester, PA | April 2016

Placement of DOT-111 Tank Cars in High-Hazard Flammable Trains and the Use of Buffer Cars for the Protection of Train Crews | December 2020

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