Category Archives: Rail Safety

I Lived My Dream: Looking Back on 15 years at NTSB

By Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

I guess it all started on an overcast day in 1973, when I found myself on the scene of a fatal aviation crash for the first time. I had heard of the crash on my car radio, and, as a curious 17‑year-old, I decided to find the crash location. Once there, I saw the remains of a twin-engine airplane lodged in the bases of the surrounding pine trees. Seeing that accident scene sparked an acute interest within me for accident investigation. In college, I spent copious amounts of time in the government documents library reading NTSB aircraft accident reports. It was then, in the mid-1970s, that I began to dream of becoming an NTSB Board member. Today, as I wrap up 15 years with the agency, serving as Board member, vice chairman, and chairman, I can look back and say I have truly lived that dream.   

Photo of ‘The State’ newspaper article on the 1973 plane crash

I was sworn in as the 37th member of the NTSB in August 2006. Seven days later, I found myself on the scene of another aviation disaster. Comair flight 5191, a regional jet operated as a Delta Connection, crashed just off the departure end of a runway in Lexington, Kentucky. Forty-nine lives were lost that morning after the pilots inexplicitly attempted to take off on a short, closed, unlighted runway. The investigation found that the pilots’ casual attitude during preflight and during the brief taxi, including their engaging in nonpertinent conversation, enabled the crew’s errors. Quite simply, the crew wasn’t paying attention and lost positional awareness. As a result, we issued and reiterated several recommendations to prevent that same type of accident. Today, flights are safer because airline pilots use enhanced procedures to ensure they are aligned with the proper runway before departure, and pilots have electronic maps that provide real-time position information during taxi.

Since the Comair crash, I’ve been on the NTSB Go-Team and served as the Board member on scene for 35 transportation accidents and crashes, and I’ve been involved in the deliberation and determination of probable cause of over 250 accidents and crashes. I’ve met with grieving family members and friends of victims on the worst day of their lives. Through these interactions, the one thing that really stands out to me is just how precious life really is. I’ve often said that we are here to give a voice to those who don’t have a voice—the victims of transportation accidents and their families. I take great solace knowing our work really does make a difference and keeps others from enduring similar tragedies.

Looking back, I believe there are two things that allow the NTSB to truly be one of the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government,” as ranked by the Partnership for Public Service: the agency’s mission, and our people.

First, the agency’s mission: Congress charged the NTSB with investigating transportation accidents and crashes, determining their cause, and issuing safety recommendations to prevent similar accidents and crashes, reduce injuries, and save lives. It’s an important calling—taking something tragic and learning from it so others don’t have to endure such a tragedy. Since the NTSB was formed in 1967, we have investigated over 150,000 aviation accidents, along with thousands of highway, marine, rail, pipeline, and hazardous materials accidents and incidents. In that period, we’ve issued over 15,000 safety recommendations, the majority of which have been successfully implemented.  

Our people: Even with a respectable mission, you’re nothing without great people. Fortunately, this is where the NTSB really takes the cake. We’re able to attract and retain dedicated, bright employees who love their work. We actively promote diversity and inclusion, and my hope is that the agency will continue to expand this effort. Our investigators’ passion and determination to find the truth is uplifting. Even throughout the pandemic, although working remotely, NTSB employees found ways to continue delivering our high-quality products. For example, before the pandemic, we had never conducted virtual Board meetings, where we deliberate accident findings, determine the probable cause, and adopt safety recommendations. Even with the challenges of 2020, our employees figured a way to get it done. We held 12 virtual Board meetings in a year, which compares favorably to a normal year of in-person meetings. Although I’ve always had high expectations of the NTSB workforce, I can honestly say that, considering the challenges we all faced during the pandemic, NTSB employees surpassed all expectations.

There are several other qualities that allow the NTSB to be a highly respected federal agency. One of our core values is transparency; we are open and honest with the public about our work. We realize that, when a transportation disaster occurs, the public needs to be assured that the government is conducting an open, competent, and thorough investigation. Therefore, we deliver fact-based information as we learn it. We don’t speculate—just the facts, ma’am. All NTSB Board meetings and hearings are open to the public (literally in person when not in pandemic times, and always via webcast). We post all our accident reports and publications on our website, along with the docket for each accident, which provides reams of background information such as interviews, photos, and technical information that may not be in the final accident report.

When I was sworn in for my first term at the agency in 2006, I told the audience something I had read: “Public service is one of the highest callings in the land. You have the opportunity to make a positive impact on families, communities, states, and sometimes the world.”

I followed up by saying, “I truly believe this statement applies so well to the work of the NTSB. When my term expires, I hope we can look back and say, ‘you know, we—Board members, professional staff, industry, labor, government—we all worked together, and we did make a positive impact.”

Indeed, looking back, I truly believe we have made a difference.

I will very much miss working with the incredibly dedicated men and women of the NTSB. It will be hard to stop referring to the NTSB as “we.” Although I will no longer be part of it, the NTSB will always be part of me. For that privilege, I am forever proud and grateful. I have lived my dream.

We Can Do Big Things. Just Look at Positive Train Control

By Member Jennifer Homendy

After 50 years of investigation, advocacy, and persistence by the NTSB, positive train control (PTC) is now a reality across the country!

This video highlights the NTSB’s more than 50 year effort in investigating PTC-preventable accidents and advocacy for this life-saving technology.

PTC systems use GPS and other technology to prevent certain train collisions and derailments. It could have been lifesaving in the 154 rail accidents that have killed more than 300 people, and injured more than 6,800 passengers, crewmembers, and track workers in major accidents stretching across the nation, from Darien, Connecticut, in 1969, to Chatsworth, California, in 2008, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 2015, and DuPont, Washington, in 2017.

But let’s step back and marvel at this real achievement—and the effort it took. Safety improvements are never easy or quick. It took more than 50 years of advocacy by the NTSB and historic action by Congress to make PTC a reality. For many of these years, the NTSB was a lonely voice for safety, pushing for PTC despite opposition from railroads over the price tag and technological hurdles.

I know how tough the battle was because I was there. As staff director for the House subcommittee charged with overseeing rail safety, I played a role in ensuring that any effort to move legislation forward to improve rail safety included the NTSB’s recommendation to implement PTC. When I got to the NTSB, one of my priorities was to ensure that mandate was implemented.

It truly is remarkable in Washington to keep such clear focus on PTC across so many administrations, through so many changes in Congress and at the NTSB.

Earlier this month, I had the honor of moderating a panel of current and former NTSB leaders and staff who recalled the long, bumpy road to PTC implementation. NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt and former agency heads Chris Hart, Debbie Hersman, and Jim Hall recalled their own contributions and noted how remarkable the agency’s sheer persistence was in a time of short attention spans and quickly changing priorities.

It was so uplifting to hear their personal reflections of their time on the Board fighting for PTC, and their continued commitment to the agency and its critical safety mission. But it was the staff panel that really defined persistence. Generations of rail investigators and other staff worked every one of the 154 PTC-preventable accidents over the decades, launching to horrific crash scenes only to discover similarities pointing to the same solution: PTC. They spent holidays working. Missed birthdays and anniversaries. Completed their important jobs regardless of on-scene obstacles and personal priorities.

Recording of the January 14, 2021, NTSB live‑streamed discussion about Positive Train Control implementation.

The public doesn’t often see what goes on behind the scenes at accident investigations, after investigations are completed when recommendations need to be implemented, and the tremendous work required to keep those recommendations at the forefront of discussions to improve safety. As stated in the first panel, board members come and go, but it’s the staff that keep these critical safety issues alive. It was truly remarkable and heartwarming to hear their reflections of the agency’s work and how that work has impacted public safety, as well as how it affected them personally. I hope it gave the public a sense of what it takes to stay focused on an issue for five full decades.

Was it worth it? You bet. PTC will save lives.

Other safety improvements have also taken many years to implement. Midair collisions were dramatically reduced by the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). That took decades to put in place. Airliner fuel-tank inerting systems, which addressed fuel tank explosions like the one that brought down TWA Flight 800 in 1996, also took years. And let’s not forget about the long fight for airbags and seat belts in passenger vehicles. All these transportation safety improvements were strongly and relentlessly advocated for by the NTSB.

We can do big things in America. We can save more lives on our rails, in the sky, in communities where pipelines are located, on the water, and on the highway. But major safety improvements like PTC take time, money and, perhaps most of all, incredible perseverance.

Rail Safety Week 2020

By Member Jennifer Homendy

Today kicks off Operation Lifesaver’s 2020 Rail Safety Week in North America. In normal years, Operation Lifesaver and its partners hold events across the country to educate the public on rail safety issues and promote safe actions around railroad tracks. Those efforts will be focused on virtual outreach this year. This is important work because, tragically, hundreds of people are fatally struck by trains in incidents that could have been avoided, and there are far too many close calls. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) data shows there were 422 total fatalities on US railroads last year, the majority of which were trespassing or highway–rail grade crossing incidents.

It isn’t uncommon to witness risky behavior on or near railroad tracks. Have you ever seen a car, pedestrian, or cyclist ignore warnings that a train is approaching and cross tracks anyway? How about those family photos taken on train tracks? In May, I wrote a blog about the dangers of trespassing and risky behavior at rail grade crossings—behavior I witnessed myself on a recent visit to Alaska.

Railroad tracks are private property, and trespassing is not only unlawful, it’s dangerous. In 2014, the NTSB investigated an accident involving a film crew trespassing on CSX tracks near Jesup, Georgia. The actions of the film crew, who were not authorized to film on CSX right‑of-way, resulted in the death of one crewmember and caused injuries to six others when a freight train passed on the bridge where the crew was filming.

Trains have the right of way to pass through highway–rail grade crossings without stopping for road traffic. In fact, it’s our responsibility—the road users—to stop for train traffic. There are both passive and active highway–rail grade crossings. At passive crossings, signage will warn road users to be vigilant when crossing tracks and to look for oncoming trains. At active crossings, often found in more populated areas, flashing lights, audible alarms, and automatic gates will warn of an approaching train. If you are a Waze user, the app will now alert drivers that they are approaching railroad crossings.  

Have you ever noticed the blue and white signs posted near grade crossings? The Emergency Notification System (ENS) signs include a phone number and the crossing’s USDOT number so the railroads can be notified of an emergency or warning device malfunction. If, for some reason, you become stuck on the tracks at a grade crossing, immediately get out of your vehicle and move to safety. Then, find this sign to alert the railroad. If you do not see a sign, call 911.

I think it’s also important to mention that September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. This year has been challenging for all of us and paying attention to our mental health is more important than ever. There are resources that can help: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) is available 24/7 for English or Spanish speakers, and for those who are hard of hearing. There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking support when we’re feeling vulnerable.

Let’s take care of ourselves—and each other—and take rail safety seriously. Remember: trains are heavy, moving fast, and take over a mile to come to a stop. It’s up to us to obey warnings, be vigilant, and stay off the tracks.

Arriving Soon: Fully Implemented Positive Train Control

By Member Jennifer Homendy

December 31, 2020—not only will it be the last day of an incredibly challenging year that I think we’ll all be happy to put behind us, it’s also a significant day for railroad safety. It’s the final deadline for all 41 railroads to fully implement Positive Train Control (PTC). It’s been a long journey to get to this point and I’m thrilled to see the great progress that’s been made over the years. There were times no one believed we’d get to where we are today, so how did we get here?

PTC is a communications-based system designed to automatically stop a train before certain accidents occur. It won’t prevent all train accidents, like vehicle-train accidents at grade crossings or those caused by track and equipment failures, but it is designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, overspeed derailments, incursions into established work zones, and train movement through switches left in the wrong position.

The concept of PTC isn’t new. In fact, the NTSB has been urging railroads to implement PTC in some form—and federal regulators to mandate it—for over 50 years. Our first recommendation related to PTC (Safety Recommendation R‑70‑20) was issued following a deadly train collision in Darien, Connecticut, in August 1969, when two Penn Central commuter trains collided head on, killing 3 crew members and 1 passenger, and injuring 43 others. Twenty years later, the NTSB included PTC on its first Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements (MWL), and, with the exception of 4 years following enactment of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA; Public Law 110-432, Division A), it’s remained on the list to this day.

MWL04s_PTC

Before the passage of the RSIA, we had been recommending this lifesaving technology for decades, yet little action had been taken to implement its use. Even the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which is the federal agency charged by Congress with ensuring “the assignment and maintenance of safety as the highest priority,” had rebuffed repeated NTSB calls for implementing PTC, asserting that the technology was too expensive and that it would provide little safety benefit—a claim that was seemingly inconsistent with the August 1999 Railroad Safety Advisory Committee report, Implementation of Positive Train Control Systems, which found that, out of a select group of 6,400 rail accidents that occurred from 1988 to 1997, 2,659 could have been prevented if some form of PTC had been implemented.

Most people who follow the history of PTC will say it was the 2008 Metrolink crash in Chatsworth, California, that really brought PTC to the attention of Congress, but that’s not entirely true. In fact, it was a string of PTC‑preventable accidents that occurred in the early to mid-2000s that finally caused the issue to make headway. Six of these accidents were accidents that we investigated in 2004 and 2005. They occurred in Macdona, Texas; Graniteville, South Carolina; Anding, Mississippi; Shepherd, Texas; Chicago, Illinois; and Texarkana, Arkansas.

The ones I remember most were Macdona and Graniteville; they were, in part, the reason the PTC mandate applies, not just to main lines over which passengers are transported, but also to main lines over which poisonous or toxic-by-inhalation hazardous materials are transported.

On June 28, 2004, a Union Pacific (UP) freight train struck the midpoint of a BNSF freight train traveling on the same main line track as the BNSF train was entering a siding. Chlorine escaping from a punctured tank car immediately vaporized into a cloud of chlorine gas that engulfed the area. The conductor of the UP train and two Macdona residents died as a result of chlorine gas inhalation. About 30 others were treated for respiratory distress or other injuries related to the collision and derailment.

Just 6 months later, on January 6, 2005, a Norfolk Southern train transporting chlorine encountered a misaligned switch that diverted the train from the main line onto an industry track, where it struck an unoccupied, parked Norfolk Southern train, killing the 28-year-old train engineer, Chris Seeling, and eight others as a result of chlorine gas inhalation. About 554 people suffering from respiratory difficulties were taken to local hospitals; 5,400 others within a 1-mile radius of the derailment site were evacuated for several days.

Both accidents were preventable with PTC.

I wasn’t at the NTSB at the time. I was serving as staff director of the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials. Congressman James Oberstar (D-MN) had just been named chairman of the committee, and one of his first acts as chair was to launch a series of hearings focused on rail safety. (Coincidentally, the subcommittee’s first hearing on the topic was the first time Chairman Sumwalt, then an NTSB board member, testified before Congress.)

One of those was a field hearing held in March 2007 in San Antonio, Texas, where Ralph Velasquez, a resident of Macdona, described his family’s escape from “the cloud of chlorine” and the tremendous physical, mental, and emotional toll the accident had taken on his family and the entire community. Mr. Velasquez’s words were similar to those of Chris Seeling’s parents, who had visited me and Chairman Oberstar months earlier. Both families wanted action, including implementation of NTSB recommendations.

Two months later, Chairman Oberstar delivered on his promises. The House approved legislation that mandated longstanding NTSB recommendations and established a deadline for PTC implementation. The Senate passed its bill in 2008, and we were in the process of finalizing a bipartisan, bicameral bill to include PTC when a Metrolink commuter train collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train, killing 25 people in Chatsworth, California.

The tragedy in Chatsworth—which the NTSB later determined was preventable with PTC—gave the legislation its final push, and in October, the RSIA was signed into law, mandating PTC implementation by December 31, 2015. This deadline was later extended by Congress to 2018, and then again by the FRA on a case-by-case basis to 2020.

Since the RSIA was signed into law in 2008, the NTSB has investigated 25 accidents that would’ve been prevented had PTC been implemented, including the overspeed derailments of Amtrak passenger train 188 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which killed eight people onboard, and Amtrak passenger train 501 near DuPont, Washington, which took three lives and injured more than 50 others. In all, since that first accident investigation in 1969, over 300 people have been killed and almost 7,000 others have been injured in 154 accidents that the NTSB determined could have been prevented if PTC had been operational. When people think about the 2008 mandate and how long it’s taken the railroads to implement that mandate, they get frustrated with Congress for extending the deadline, but what they fail to remember is, if it weren’t for congressional action, we wouldn’t be where we are today. The railroads wouldn’t have implemented PTC voluntarily.

Today, PTC data submitted to the FRA is looking far more positive than in the past. Since I joined the Board in 2018, I’ve visited or spoken to a majority of the 41 railroads regarding their PTC status, and they’re mostly reporting good progress. Most railroads are expected to meet the end-of-year deadline, and I’m cautiously optimistic that all 41 will succeed.

Because of the NTSB’s tireless advocacy, beginning long before I joined the Board, and the hard work of our investigators, the finish line is at last in sight. Our investigators work diligently to prevent tragedies like Macdona and Graniteville from recurring. If Chairman Oberstar was alive today, he would call them heroes for their dedication and for all they’ve done to save lives.

Today marks 154 days until the latest deadline for PTC implementation. That’s also the number of PTC-related accidents we’ve investigated over the years. For the rest of this year, stay tuned to our social media channels, where we’ll share information daily about each of the accidents (look for #PTCdeadline). These accidents are a reminder of how much we’ve lost while waiting for the implementation of PTC.

2020_Countdown_PTCdeadline--IG

 

 

When it Comes Down to You and a Train, You Won’t Win!

By Member Jennifer Homendy

It seems like it should be obvious that you should never gamble with safety, but, for some reason, people often do when it comes to trains.

Last spring, I visited our regional office in Alaska, and on the way to a meeting, I stopped along the road near Turnagain Arm. Just beyond the parking lot was a fence, some train tracks, and a stunning shoreline overlooking the bay. Signs were posted along the fence, warning visitors not to cross the tracks. On that day—and I’m sure many others—the warnings were ignored. The fence was cut, people were crawling underneath to get to the shoreline, and several families were taking pictures on the tracks. It was a familiar scene. I’ve witnessed the same risky behavior on train tracks and at crossings near my home, and, let me tell you, when it’s between you and a train, you won’t win! Trains weigh tons, they’re moving faster than you think, sometimes you won’t hear them (even though you think you will), and they can take over a mile to come to a stop. Don’t risk it!

Railroads have always had the right of way, and they often existed before the communities that grew around them. Roughly a century before commercial airports began connecting a network of American cities, and long before the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 established the Interstate Highway System, the first steam engine railroads were created to transport passengers and freight in the United States. Railroads were foundational to our country, pushing westward and growing throughout the industrial revolution. As trains transported more and more passengers and commerce across a young nation expanding its territory, cities and small towns grew alongside the tracks. This history is why we now see so many highway-rail grade crossings in the United States.

Grade crossing safety has been a challenge for decades. Fatalities and injuries resulting from collisions at grade crossings occur all over the United States and are particularly problematic in densely populated urban areas that surround at-grade tracks. States and local governments are primarily responsible for the decisions that make crossings safer, including upgrades to warning signals and infrastructure improvements, such as roadway redesigns, crossing consolidations, and grade separations. But these projects are expensive for states and local governments, and they often require funding from oversubscribed federal grant programs.

In 2008, following an audit by the US Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) Inspector General, Congress required the DOT to identify the 10 states with the highest number of grade crossing collisions and direct those states to develop action plans identifying specific solutions for improving safety at crossings, particularly crossings where multiple accidents had occurred or that were at high risk for accidents. Those states were Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Ohio, and Texas.

In 2015, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act extended the mandate to all states. The law also required the DOT to develop a model grade-crossing action plan and distribute it to the states to help focus their efforts. This requirement was in response to two NTSB safety recommendations (H-12-60 and -61) issued following a grade crossing collision we investigated on June 24, 2011, in Miriam, Nevada, which tragically took the lives of a truck driver, a train conductor, and four train passengers.

Despite implementation of these recommendations, as well as many others, and the tremendous actions of railroads and state and local governments in partnership with the federal government, grade crossing collisions and the rate at which they occur have increased over the past decade. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) data show that there were 2,216 grade crossing incidents in 2019, up from 2,052 in 2010. The rate of incidents per million train miles also increased from 2.911 to 3.273 over the same time period, while fatalities at grade crossings grew from 261 to 293.

Those figures don’t even include trespassers on train tracks, like those I saw in Alaska. Trespasser incidents (not at grade crossings) have increased from 788 in 2010 to 1,092 in 2019. Deaths and injuries have soared from a total of 801 to 1,122 over the last decade. This is tragic, and, as a society, we can—and must—do better.

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The NTSB continues to investigate grade crossing collisions and recommend safety enhancements, such as infrastructure upgrades and better signage at crossings. We’ve held public forums and worked alongside the FRA, Operation Lifesaver, railroads, and rail labor to raise public awareness about safety at grade crossings and the need to stay off the tracks. But, ultimately, it’s our responsibility to always be vigilant and take safety seriously. Drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians must obey warning signs and signals, stay off the tracks, stop and look both ways at passive crossings, and avoid distractions. Trying to beat an oncoming train is reckless and deadly.