In just under two weeks there have been four major accident launches. On Friday, May 17, the NTSB launched a go-team to Bridgeport, Conn., to investigate a derailment and collision involving two Metro North passenger trains. The following Friday evening, a bridge collapsed over the Skagit River in Mt. Vernon, Washington; the NTSB was on scene that evening and the rest of the go-team arrived the next morning. Then, early in the morning on May 25, two freight trains collided under a highway overpass in Chaffee, Mo., causing the trains to derail and the overpass to partially collapse. Another go-team launched and arrived in Missouri that afternoon. Next, on May 28 a train struck a truck at a railroad grade crossing near Baltimore, Maryland; and yes, another go-team launched.
And, while go-teams were launching all over the country, other investigators were responding to additional accidents. On May 20, there was a fish processing vessel fire near Seattle and a marine safety investigator traveled to Washington to work with the U.S. Coast Guard. Similarly, two marine safety investigators traveled to Freeport, Bahamas, to join the Bahamian authorities and the Coast Guard in the investigation of the May 27 Grandeur of the Seas cruise-ship fire. On May 28, a Metro North passenger train struck and killed a track foreman in West Haven, Conn.; NTSB sent an investigator to West Haven this morning.
During this same period, NTSB regional aviation safety investigators responded to fatal accidents in Auburn, Ca. (May 18); Garoga, N.Y. (May 24); Cross Timbers, Mo. (May 25); Macon, Ga. (May 27); and Flagstaff, Ariz. (May 28).
The total: 12 accidents in 12 days. There’s a lot going on and our dedicated professionals are up to the challenge. In each of these investigations, the goal is simple: find out what happened and why so that we can develop safety recommendations to prevent future accidents and needless loss of life and injuries.
Our transportation infrastructure—roads, railways, waterways, and airports— is what makes the movement of people and goods possible; it drives our economy. In a way, our infrastructure is like a house – America’s house. It needs to be maintained for ourselves and generations to come. In his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed a “fix-it-first” approach to investing in our nation’s deteriorating infrastructure. And the NTSB believes that as these investment decisions are made, safety needs to have a seat at the table.
The “Fix it First” plan makes repairing and upgrading existing roads, bridges and public transportation systems a priority over spending on new projects. In 2006, 70,000 of the roughly 600,000 bridges nationwide were classified as “structurally deficient,” meaning that major deterioration, cracks or other flaws reduced its ability to support vehicles.
Back in 2006, the I35W bridge in Minneapolis was identified as a structurally deficient bridge. Before improvements could be made, that bridge collapsed on August 1, 2007, killing 13 people and injuring another 145. In our subsequent investigation of this tragedy, the NTSB identified three critical factors that contributed to this collapse: (1) a failure in the design firm’s quality control procedures to ensure that all calculations were performed correctly, (2) inadequate design review by Federal and State transportation officials, and (3) inadequate attention to a critical bridge component during inspections.
In “Fix It First, Expand It Second, Reward It Third: A New Strategy for America’s Highways,” a report by The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, authors Matthew Kahn and David Levinson argue that the roads and bridges that make up our nation’s highway infrastructure are in disrepair as a result of insufficient maintenance — a deficit that increases travel times, damages vehicles, and can lead to accidents that cause injuries or even fatalities. This report emphasizes that if we want to prevent future tragedies, such as the I35W bridge collapse, we need to make effective investments that put safety at the center.
This is Critical Infrastructure Protection and Resilience Month. This December, President Obama has called Americans across the country to maintain our commitment to keeping our critical infrastructure and our communities safe and resilient. In his proclamation, the President reminded us that, “Our Nation’s critical infrastructure is complex and interconnected, and we must understand not only its strengths, but also its vulnerabilities to emerging threats.”
At the NTSB, we focus on one part of that infrastructure – transportation. Every day, Americans rely on transportation infrastructure to take children to school, travel to work, take vacations and to obtain daily necessities, including food, clothing and energy. We know firsthand how important our transportation infrastructure can be to families and communities, as so many of our fellow citizens experienced in New Jersey and New York after the devastating effects of Super Storm Sandy.
What should be done to preserve our transportation infrastructure? Our accident investigations have revealed that inspection guidance that incorporates all elements of the structure, proper maintenance and use of available technologies all have a role to play. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that whenever decisions are being made about infrastructure, safety must have a seat at the table.
Here’s a snapshot of the scope of our nation’s infrastructure: In 2010, 4.2 trillion passenger miles were traveled on our nation’s roadways. Domestic freight traffic carried by air, truck, rail, water and pipeline totaled more than 4.3 trillion ton-miles. That means there are literally trillions of reasons to maintain the integrity of our roads, runways, waterways, rails and pipelines.