Category Archives: Rail Safety

Reflecting back on 10 years as a Board Member

By Robert Sumwalt

On August 21, 2006, I was sworn in as the 37th member of the National Transportation Safety Board. At the same time, I was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve as NTSB Vice Chairman. In 2011, President Barack Obama reappointed me for an additional five-year term as a board member.

Robert Sumwalt, taking the oath of office, administered by then-NTSB Chairman Mark V. Rosenker on August 21, 2006.
Robert Sumwalt, taking the oath of office, administered by then-NTSB Chairman Mark V. Rosenker on August 21, 2006.

As I reflect on 10 years as an NTSB board member, there are several things that stand out. First, is the mission. Our role in transportation safety quickly became apparent when, on my seventh day on the job, I launched to an airline crash in Lexington, Kentucky. Tragically, that crash claimed 49 lives.

But, the NTSB’s primary mission involves more than just investigating accidents. It also involves determining the cause of accidents, and then, most importantly, issuing safety recommendations to prevent future accidents. At the entrance to our training center, we have an etched glass window that says, “From tragedy we draw knowledge to protect the safety of us all.” And that’s exactly what we do – we learn from tragedy so we can keep it from happening again.

Recently, one of our investigators wrote to me about a rail accident he investigated where fire and explosion claimed multiple lives. He told of meeting a man who was glaring at the carnage as he pushed a baby in a carriage. As it turned out, the man’s wife – the baby’s mother – had been killed in the disaster. Our investigator promised the man that the NTSB would get to the bottom of why this event occurred so other accidents could be prevented. “I also watched a man standing outside of the exclusion zone peering over the barrier in tears as a backhoe demolished his home,” the investigator explained in his note to me. “My thoughts were of those victims, and it was clear that we were being called upon to do this for them.”

Yes, we are here to give a voice to those who don’t have a voice—the victims and their families of transportation accidents. I take great solace knowing our work really does make a difference and keeps others from enduring similar tragedies.

The NTSB is an independent federal agency – meaning, we are not attached to a larger federal organization such as the U.S. Department of Transportation. In my opinion, independence is one of our greatest virtues because it allows the agency to conduct investigations and explore safety issues without being encumbered by actual or perceived political pressures. As I’ve often said, our independence allows us to “call it the way we see it.”

What also stands out to me is the dedication of the men and women of the NTSB. Their passion and determination to find the truth is uplifting. In the most recent employee viewpoint survey, 96 percent of respondents replied positively to the statement, “When needed I am willing to put in the extra effort to get a job done.” That demonstrates the commitment and dedication NTSB employees share for fulfilling our mission.

In addition to investigative activities, there is a proactive side to the NTSB. Our staff conducts safety studies, tracks and follows up on our safety recommendations, and advocates for safety improvements by providing testimony on safety issues, promoting our Most Wanted List, bringing important safety issues into the public discussion via social media efforts, and organizing safety events such as roundtable discussions.

One of the NTSB’s values is transparency; we are open and honest with the public about our work. We post on our website all accident reports and publications, as well as the docket for each accident. The docket provides reams of background information for accidents, such as interviews, photos, and technical information that may not be in the actual accident report. Our board meetings are webcast and open to the public. And, our Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications ensures the media are informed of the status of investigations by answering questions, arranging interviews, issuing press releases, and releasing updates through social media.

Many are surprised to learn that the NTSB also serves as a court of appeals for pilots, aircraft mechanics, and mariners who receive violation notices from the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S Coast Guard. The NTSB’s Office of Administrative Law Judges (ALJ) processes those cases, and our three ALJs hold hearings to adjudicate those matters.

The NTSB’s Office of Transportation Disaster Assistance – a highly trained group with expertise in social services, emergency management, and forensics – works closely with various organizations to meet the needs of disaster victims and their families. This group also serves as the primary point of contact for family members and disaster victims, providing updates regarding the status of NTSB investigations and addressing their questions. It takes a special person to do the work they do, and I’m always appreciative of how well they do it.

There are other parts of the agency that aren’t often acknowledged, but nevertheless are important to allowing the agency to function. As in any organization, job openings need to be posted and filled, bills paid, contracts written and executed, and our computers maintained. The employees who perform these functions are as dedicated as those performing the agency’s core mission.

To put it simply, I’m so proud to be part of this agency. Our mission, independence, transparency, and people are all so important. I’m honored to have served with them for the past 10 years.

Robert Sumwalt is an NTSB board member.

Roundtable Review – Part 2: The latest on rail tank car safety

By Robert L. Sumwalt

In last week’s blog, Roundtable Review-Part 1, I provided an overview of the NTSB’s July 13, 2016, rail tank car roundtable. Today’s blog discusses how the industry is monitoring its progress and the available options for meeting the earliest federal deadlines.

FAST Act Phase-out ScheduleFollowing the February 2015 crude oil derailment and fire near Mt. Carbon, WV, the NTSB issued an urgent recommendation calling for the Department of Transportation to make a “publicly available reporting mechanism that reports at least annually, progress on retrofitting and replacing tank cars.” Section 7308 of the FAST (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) Act calls for the DOT Secretary to implement a reporting mechanism to monitor industry-wide progress toward meeting these federally-imposed deadlines. Many who participated in the roundtable were optimistic that the deadlines could be met.

More than two dozen rail tank car owners, operators, and manufacturers, as well as labor union representatives and transportation safety associations, came together to discuss ways industry and government can work together to overcome the challenges associated with meeting federally-imposed mandates that involve phasing out both legacy DOT-111 and CPC-1232 tank cars that carry flammable liquids (see image of timetable).

Participants addressed concerns with issues surrounding replacing older specification tank cars. “The one thing is to make sure we’ve got the best inspection and prevention techniques and technologies that we can possibly deploy,” said Hal Gard.

Gard is the rail administrator with Oregon’s DOT, a state which saw 42,000 gallons of crude oil spill along a scenic stretch along its revered Columbia River in Mosier after a derailment of CPC-1232 tank cars in June. “It was a bad day,” Gard said. “The CPC-1232s actually performed well, [but] we still are going to have to deal with the aftermath of that accident for a while.”

During the meeting, the roundtable participants dug into various details of and challenges associated with implementing the provisions of the FAST Act—for example, addressing differences between the types of tank cars currently in crude oil and ethanol service, specifications of the new DOT-117 cars, and various options available to the industry to retrofit.

Most agreed that it would take a sustained, concerted effort from all industry parties working together to meet the required deadlines. The shipper is responsible for the proper packaging of whatever they’re going to ship, reminded Robert Hulick, executive vice president with Trinity Rail. He said that many play a role in meeting deadlines, including the tank car owners and those who lease the cars. “It’s not any one party that makes that decision unilaterally,” he said.

Denford Jaja, with the Hess Corporation, agreed that there needs to be “a joint effort between the industry, the shippers, railroads, [and] the regulatory bodies.”

Jaja also said that when all parties involved have access to clear, validated information, it is easier to measure progress toward the goal. “We are fully supportive of a science- and fact-based approach to safety,” he said. “The faster we can resolve uncertainties, I think that’ll give us some certainty on the path forward.”

Andreas Aeppli, principal with Cambridge Systematics, said everyone who has a vested interest or role in the transport of commodities by rail needs to continue to educate themselves and understand what is actually required. For instance, while some of the most distant federal deadlines for halting the transport of crude oil and ethanol in DOT-111 and CPC-1232 tank cars aren’t until May 2025, the earliest mandates for some tank cars take effect much sooner, on January 1, 2018.

“It’s really important to have…information available because it’s freely out there. When you want to hold people’s feet to the fire, particularly as we get closer to the deadlines, [we need] to ensure that everybody is aware of what’s going on and adheres to the regulations and requirements that are being called for,” Aeppli said.

As stated in last week’s blog, those participating in the roundtable left feeling hopeful that progress would continue to be made. William Bates, a labor union legislative director with SMART Transportation Division, was among those who are cautiously optimistic. Addressing the entire roundtable, he said: “I would have the peace of mind knowing that I got the best equipment there. I hope that every car I pull is a [DOT] -117 or [one that has been] retrofitted. We need everybody’s help. Let’s get on the ball!”

For a complete transcript of the roundtable, see our “Events” page.

Robert L. Sumwalt is an NTSB Board Member and he moderated the roundtable

Roundtable Review – Part 1: The latest on rail tank car safety

By Robert L. Sumwalt


Member Robert L. Sumwalt opens the Rail Tank Car Roundtable at the NTSB Boardroom and Conference Center.
Member Robert L. Sumwalt opens the Rail Tank Car Roundtable at the NTSB Boardroom and Conference Center.

I had the privilege of moderating a day-long NTSB roundtable pertaining to rail tank car safety on July 13, 2016, in which more than two dozen rail-car manufacturers and owners, union representatives, and transportation safety associations discussed the rail industry’s progress and challenges on implementing new federal safety standards for tank cars that carry flammable liquids. The event provided rail industry leaders an open forum to discuss the logistics of replacing the existing tank car fleet in flammable liquid service to meet new federally imposed deadlines, and to identify ways in which government and industry can overcome roadblocks they face to meeting those mandates.

The U.S Department of Transportation (DOT) is requiring shippers to address the oldest, higher risk tank cars first: DOT-111 tank cars – which historically have been the most common type of cars to carry crude oil and ethanol. Shippers using legacy DOT-111 tank cars to haul crude oil must decide to either retire or retrofit them to new standards by March 2018, at the latest. For the DOT-111 tank cars that haul ethanol, shippers have until May 2023.

The deadlines set by federal officials for compliance are more relaxed for newer, modified version of these tank cars, called CPC-1232s. Deadlines to get CPC-1232s out of service for shipping crude oil and ethanol (or retrofitted to meet DOT-117 standards) extend as far into the future as May 2025. For shipping other Class 3 flammable liquids, shippers have until May 2029.

DOT-117 tank cars are a safer means of transporting flammable liquids because these tank cars are less likely experience a puncture (and therefore, a product release) because of several safety specifications that DOT-111 and CPC-1232 tank cars do not have.

Newly manufactured DOT-117 tank cars are built with a thicker shell that is nine-sixteenths of an inch thick, which is 28 percent thicker than legacy DOT-111 tank cars and most CPS-1232 cars. DOT-117 cars also have thermal and top fittings protection; an extra layer of 11 gauge (approximately 3 mm) steel surrounding the shell, known as a tank jacket; and full-height head shields, which add an extra one-half inch of protective steel on each end of the tank cars. Also, there is improved protection to the bottom outlet valve handle to guard against inadvertent opening during a derailment.

Two main points are relevant when considering whether shippers can meet these new deadlines. First, can tank car manufacturers supply enough cars to meet demand? We were encouraged to hear that manufacturers felt they could.

There are, however, more complex considerations on the demand side. With the recent decrease in domestic oil production, some in the industry see steep price tags for new and retrofitted cars as being prohibitive. “This is a game changer for shippers,” said Gabe Claypool, with Dakota Plains Holdings, Inc., during the roundtable.

John Bryne, of the Railway Supply Institute, agreed. He said economic factors heavily influence the decision making process when it comes to the timing of the legacy tank car phase out. “Industry has done a good job at meeting voluntary improvements for better packaging, but more needs to be done. Also, there needs to be some sort of incentive for the shippers to act more quickly.”

Without those incentives, Bryne warned that progress toward swifter compliance with federal deadlines could be stifled, although the deadlines themselves can be met. This leads to the next point: one hurdle toward quick implementation of these needed changes are, in a sense, the deadlines themselves. With some of the due dates extending nine years or more, shippers and those who currently lease tank cars can wait several more years before the recommendations to phase out older tank cars become absolute law.

While these considerations may make sense from a business perspective, from the NTSB’s perspective, the sooner these changes are made, the better – a belief that is fueled by numerous accidents we have seen involving breached tank cars. In the past decade, there have been 28 significant accidents in the U.S. and Canada involving flammable liquids transported by rail, in which nearly 5 million gallons of crude oil and ethanol have spilled. In each of these accidents, legacy DOT-111 or CPC-1232 tank cars were used to transport flammable liquids. If past performance is a predictor of future performance, continuing to transport crude oil and ethanol in DOT-111 or CPC 1232 tank cars poses an unacceptable public risk.

Several roundtable participants expressed optimism that the deadlines could be met.

Robert Fronczak, assistant vice president of the American Association of Railroads, provided statistics showing the number of legacy DOT-111 tank cars in crude oil transportation has steadily decreased since 2013 – from a peak of more than 21,600 three years ago, to just 708 through the first quarter of this year.

Kevin Neels, Ph.D., a transportation and research consultant with The Brattle Group, stated those numbers are a sign industry is headed in the right direction. “A lot of the riskiest cars are going out of service. And that’s good. We need to continue to monitor this to ensure that risk-prone tank cars stay out of service. In due course, we’ll see a much safer fleet hauling these materials.”

In next week’s blog, we will discuss how the industry is monitoring its progress and the available options for meeting the earliest federal deadlines.


Robert L. Sumwalt is an NTSB Board Member.

Rail Workers: Deadly Tired…but Still Working

By Georgetta Gregory

The rail business is an industry full of tired, stressed workers. It is an epidemic.

I know this first-hand because, before coming to the NTSB several years ago, I spent more than 30 years working in the freight railroad industry. While freight railroad managers and crews count on reliable schedules to make their shipments and make their customers happy, there is no routine schedule for the hundreds of thousands of crewmembers employed in this business. As a result, many railroad workers are literally walking and working in their sleep.

I was one of them.

One of my last jobs before coming to the NTSB was as a trainmaster for a major freight railroad. My duties included safely seeing the arrival and departure of trains in and out of terminals in California. I spent a large majority of my time reviewing train schedules and communicating with train personnel of arriving and departing trains. I coordinated the efforts of nearly 300 crewmembers, including yardmasters, dispatchers and engineers, to execute the transportation plan on my territory. Additionally, I was responsible for making sure all the work was done safely and in accordance with rules and regulations.

The job was very stressful and required long hours. It wasn’t unusual for me to work 80 hours a week. I often worked overnight, evenings, weekends and long hours.

Over time, I became chronically fatigued. I gained weight and began to lose my memory and other cognitive abilities. I had no routine schedule for sleep, because I worked irregular hours that were counter to my circadian rhythms. Eventually, I began to make mistakes at work and in my personal life – potentially dangerous ones.

Noting how my work and home life was suffering, I went to a sleep specialist. The doctor determined that I was fatigued at a dangerous level – to the point where the state of California took my driver’s license. Ironically, while I could no longer drive a car, I was still expected to carry out the meticulous details associated with managing rail yards.

I warned my bosses, but there was little help or response. I made suggestions for improvements, including encouraging the railroad to provide better lineups and opportunities for rest, but I felt unsupported and became concerned for the safety of my crews. Eventually, I left the railroad and began a new career.

My story is not unusual. And when I came to the NTSB as Chief of the Railroad Division, I quickly learned that the NTSB also realized the dangers of fatigue in the railroad business. As a result of our investigations in recent years, we have issued more than 25 recommendations related to managing fatigue—all still open, needing to be addressed.

Wreckage of BNSF train, including lead locomotive of striking train, at Red Oak, Iowa.
Wreckage of BNSF train, including lead locomotive of striking train, at Red Oak, Iowa.

One accident, in particular, involving a freight train perhaps best highlights the danger the NTSB is attempting to eradicate. In April 2011, an eastbound BNSF Railway (BNSF) coal train traveling about 23 mph, collided with the rear end of a standing BNSF maintenance-of-way equipment train near Red Oak, Iowa. The collision resulted in the derailment of 2 locomotives and 12 cars. The lead locomotive’s modular crew cab was detached, partially crushed, and involved in a subsequent diesel fuel fire. Both crewmembers on the striking train were fatally injured.

We determined that the probable cause of the accident was the failure of the crew of the striking train to comply with the signal indication requiring them to operate in accordance with restricted speed requirements and stop short of the standing train because they had fallen asleep due to fatigue resulting from their irregular work schedules and their medical conditions.

As a result of that accident, we recommended that the railway require all employees and managers who perform or supervise safety-critical tasks to complete fatigue training on an annual basis and document when they have received this training, and that they medically screen employees in safety-sensitive positions for sleep apnea and other sleep disorders.

Both the conductor and the engineer had worked irregular schedules for several weeks leading up to the accident. During this time, work start times often varied significantly from day to day for both crewmembers. Changing work start and end times can make achieving adequate sleep more difficult, because irregular work schedules tend to disrupt a person’s normal circadian rhythms and sleep patterns, which in turn can lead to chronic fatigue.

Metro North Train 8808 scene
Scene of the derailment of Metro North Train 8808.

More recently, we investigated an accident in New York where a Metro North Railroad locomotive engineer was operating a train with undiagnosed severe obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). The train, on its way toward Grand Central Station in New York, New York, had 115 passengers on board. The engineer headed into a curve with a 30 mph speed limit traveling at 82 mph, resulting in a derailment. Sixty-one people were injured, and 4 passengers died.

The engineer experienced a dramatic work schedule change less than 2 weeks before the accident, with his wake/sleep cycle shifting about 12 hours. Previously, he had complained of fatigue but had not been tested or treated for sleep apnea. After the accident he had a sleep evaluation that identified excessive daytime sleepiness and underwent a sleep study resulting in a diagnosis of severe OSA. Following the study, he was treated successfully for OSA within 30 days of the diagnosis.

The NTSB issued safety recommendation to the Metro-North Railroad to revise its medical protocols for employees in safety-sensitive positions to include specific protocols on sleep disorders, including OSA.

We have issued numerous recommendations to the Federal Railroad Administration, as well, requiring it to develop medical certification regulations for employees in safety-sensitive positions that include, at a minimum, a complete medical history that includes specific screening for sleep apnea and other sleep disorders, a review of current medications, and a thorough physical exam. If such a recommendation had been implemented at the railroad for which I worked, my fatigue most likely would have been caught earlier and mistakes avoided.

(Note: As I was writing this blog, I was heartened to hear that, on March 8, the FRA announced it was seeking public input on the impacts of screening, evaluating and treating rail workers for obstructive sleep apnea.)

And while the railroads and the federal regulators are responsible for addressing this epidemic, so too must railroad workers recognize the dangers of working while fatigued. Yet many are compelled to make money and want to stay ready to react at any hour of the day to avoid missing the opportunity to get paid. To a certain extent, I understand this. And that’s why we must also work with labor unions to address this issue and provide workers the opportunity for sleep, while still allowing them the opportunity to get a paycheck and progress in their careers.

Fatigue in transportation is such a significant concern for the NTSB that it has put “Reduce Fatigue-Related Accidents” on its Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements. It is not just an issue in rail, but an issue in all modes of transportation that must be addressed.

As a former railroad worker and now as a supervisor of railroad accident investigators, I can tell you we still have a long way to go to address this issue. Doing so will require the joint efforts of the regulator, the operator, and the employee. These efforts must be undertaken, because we can’t keep running down this dangerous track.

Georgetta Gregory is chief of NTSB’s Railroad Division.

Rail Tank Car Improvements – Make Them Now!

By Robert L. Sumwalt

Improve Rail Tank Car SafetyJust more than a year ago, on February 15, 2015, twenty-seven tank cars of a 109-car crude oil unit train derailed near Mount Carbon, West Virginia. Crude oil was released from the derailed cars and immediately ignited into a pool of fire. Emergency responders evacuated 1,100 people within a half-mile radius of the accident and allowed the fire to burn itself out.

All of the cars involved in the Mount Carbon accident were the enhanced DOT-111 tank cars built to the industry’s CPC-1232 standard, the best available general service tank car at the time of the accident. Yet, the fire created by two punctured tank cars resulted in 13 adjacent tank cars becoming breached when heat exposure weakened their shells, which were not equipped with thermal protection systems.

The NTSB has investigated other recent train derailments in the United States involving the release of flammable materials and post-accident fires, including the 2013 derailment of 20 crude oil tank cars in Casselton, North Dakota; the 2014 derailment of 17 crude oil tank cars in Lynchburg, Virginia; the 2015 derailment of six crude oil tank cars in Heimdal, North Dakota; and the derailment of seven ethanol tank cars in Lesterville, South Dakota.

Improve Rail Tank Cars # 2We, in the United States, have been relatively lucky, because most of the accidents that have occurred here—while still terrible and frightening to nearby residents who witnessed towering fireballs—have missed densely populated locations.

Such was not the case in LacMégantic, Quebec, a community which was not so lucky. In 2013, 63 tank cars of a crude-oil unit train derailed there, killing 47 people and destroying much of the town. In Canada, the media and government agencies continue to cover the disaster’s aftermath—and for good reason. Twenty-seven children who lost one or both parents in the disaster, known as “the orphans of Lac-Mégantic,” continue to struggle through a life forever changed. Of 800 interviewees from the area, more than half suffered depression, PTSD, and other negative feelings. Almost one in four suffered a material loss.

In all of these accidents, in both the United States and Canada, trains were carrying flammable liquids in DOT-111 tank cars. And in all of these accidents, the trains derailed.

There are three important layers of protection against such accidents:

  1. Keep the train on the tracks. Track defects are one of the leading causes of train derailments. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) data show a steady decrease in track-caused accidents over the past 20 years, due to railroad emphasis on investing in infrastructure and technological advances in track inspection systems. Continuous improvement in track maintenance is critical to reducing the probability of accidents.
  2. Keep the product in the tank car. Everybody agrees that without major upgrades, DOT-111 tank cars are not up to the task of the transportation of hazardous flammable liquids. In response to these accidents, last year the DOT issued new tank car regulations, but with a generous phase-in period. The new regulations will require that cars carrying crude oil and ethanol meet the DOT-117 standard by 2025, and that tank cars carrying other flammable liquids meet them by 2029. But as accidents like those cited above vividly demonstrate, each day that passes until our nation’s present tank car fleet is replaced or upgraded is a day lived with elevated risk. Therefore, present day tank cars should be replaced or retrofitted to meet the safer DOT-117 standard—sooner rather than later.
  3. If the worst happens, ensure that first responders are able to respond safely and effectively to the disaster. It is important to understand whether transportation operators are applying sufficient operational safeguards to counter these risks and whether emergency responders have the knowledge, guidance, equipment, procedures, and training to keep pace with a multitude of potential threats from hazardous materials releases and other consequences of transportation accidents.

The new DOT-117 standard includes tank head shields, thicker shell material for increased puncture resistance, tank jackets and thermal protection systems with reclosing high-capacity pressure relief devices, and stronger protection for bottom outlet valves and top fittings. While the NTSB has not independently determined industry’s capacity to retrofit or replace the existing tank car fleet, we would have preferred a more aggressive implementation schedule. Additionally, in the absence of intermediate milestones for full implementation of DOT-117 standards for all flammable liquids tank cars, it is up to fleet owners and regulators to ensure continuous and meaningful progress toward the use of more robust tank cars that are less prone to release products in accidents.

Similarly, positive train control (PTC) was required to be implemented by 2015, but at the end of the year, the deadline was extended to 2018. Some railroads have already advised the FRA they will need an extension to the extension, pushing implementation to late 2020.

It takes effort and money to make changes to enhance safety, and the NTSB applauds the efforts thus far to implement PTC. But it’s time to finish the job.

Similarly, we await concerted efforts by the railroads to upgrade the existing fleet of DOT-111 tank cars in flammable liquids service to the new DOT-117 standard, or relegate them to the carriage of less dangerous cargo.

A year after the Mount Carbon crude oil train fire, residents there know that they narrowly escaped their town becoming the American Lac-Mégantic – an outcome of a fiery derailment that could still happen at any moment.

For that reason, our 2016 Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements includes Promote Completion of Rail Safety Initiatives. The NTSB will continue to examine PTC implementation and the makeup of tank car fleets as factors in future railroad accident investigations, because these initiatives will significantly lower the risk of such railroad tragedies.

Robert L. Sumwalt is a Member of the NTSB Board.

PTC Must Not Go Into Double Overtime

By Robert L. Sumwalt

Member Sumwalt on scene of the Amtrak 188 accidentThis week the NTSB released nearly 2,200 pages of documents related to our investigation of the deadly Amtrak accident that occurred in Philadelphia last May. As you may recall, the train derailed after entering a turn at over twice the designated speed limit. Although the investigation will continue for a few more months, making these documents public allows our investigation to be transparent. One thing we have said since the very beginning of the investigation is that an operative Positive Train Control (PTC) system could have prevented the accident.

Promote Completion of Rail Safety Initiatives posterPTC is a system designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, derailments due to over-speed, and train intrusions into work zones. Depending on the type of installation, PTC knows the train’s location by GPS or through in-track transponders. The system also knows speed limits and other restrictions, such as those provided through signals located alongside the track, similar to traffic lights. If the train is projected to violate any of these restrictions and the train engineer does not take action to prevent the violation, PTC will intervene and actually bring the train to a stop. It’s amazing technology that will save lives.

PTC was mandated by Congress in October 2008, following a deadly train-to-train accident that claimed 25 lives in Chatsworth, CA, in which a passenger train collided head-on with a freight train. The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 called for PTC to be installed on approximately 60,000 miles of track by December 31, 2015. At the time the law was enacted, most outsiders felt seven years was sufficient time for the railroads to meet this mandate. The railroads disagreed, but put forth the effort to try to make it happen.

As it turns out, it wasn’t as easy as lawmakers envisioned. To date, the railroads have reportedly invested over $6 billion and hundreds of thousands of work hours to implement PTC. As with any complex system, there have been problems along the way. However, when it became apparent railroads would be unable to meet the statutory mandate — and potentially not operate — unless Congress extended the deadline, Congress did just that. Railroads now have until December 2018 to implement PTC.

To use a sports term, PTC is in its first overtime. Congress, however, has put a provision for another possible extension in the Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act. If the railroads have made progress but not quite able to get the ball across the finish line by the 2018 deadline, the deadline may be extended by another two years. Disappointingly, seven railroads (Canadian National, CSX, Norfolk Southern, SunRail, Metra, MBTA, and Trinity Railway Express) have already told the Federal Railroad Administration that they will not meet the 2018 deadline.

Over the past decade, over 60 deaths, more than 1,200 injuries, and millions of dollars in damages could have been prevented or mitigated by PTC. PTC must not be allowed to go into double overtime. Unlike with a sports game, lives are at stake.

Robert L. Sumwalt is a Member of the NTSB Board.

Urgent Recommendations on WMATA Safety Oversight, Explained

By Chairman Christopher A. Hart

A WMATA 5000-Series train arrives at Anacostia, a station on the Green Line of the Washington Metro. Credit: Ben Shumin via WikipediaOn September 30, we announced two urgent safety recommendations which, if acted upon, will help improve safety for Metrorail riders. The recommendations urge the Department of Transportation to seek legislative authority to put WMATA safety oversight under the Federal Railroad Administration instead of the Federal Transit Administration, and once the authority is granted, to develop an oversight transition plan.

Let me explain the details.

WMATA Is a Unique System

WMATA’s Metrorail system is the only transit system in the country that serves three jurisdictions – Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Under the present structure, all of those jurisdictions have to agree on how to create a process to provide effective safety oversight of WMATA.

What Additional ‘Safety Oversight’ Does WMATA’s Metrorail Need?

WMATA’s current safety oversight body is the Tri-State Oversight Commission, or the TOC. But in our safety investigations of WMATA accidents, we’ve found that, among other challenges, the TOC:

  • Is not independent
  • Has no safety regulations
  • Does no on-site inspections, and
  • Has no enforcement tools

If the TOC recommends that WMATA fix a safety issue, it is up to WMATA’s management to decide whether to follow TOC’s recommendation; and if they decide to follow the recommendation, it is up to WMATA’s management to decide how and when to do so.

Safety Oversight Under the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Framework

Why is TOC part of the safety oversight process?  Because the Federal Transit Administration relies on state safety agencies for its safety oversight of transit systems. So under the FTA model, state-level agencies have to be strong.

The TOC fills this state safety oversight role for WMATA. But the TOC consists of only three full-time employees, and it has no on-site inspectors or safety enforcement authority. The FTA has stated that it cannot certify the TOC as a state safety oversight agency, in part because the TOC lacks some of the capabilities listed above.

Moving Safety Oversight to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)

There is precedent for the FRA oversight of WMATA that we have recommended because there are some transit agencies in this country that are currently under FRA safety oversight. For example, the FRA provides direct oversight over the New York and New Jersey PATH system instead of using state safety oversight agencies.

The FRA has safety regulations for equipment, track, signals and operations. It also has safety inspection and enforcement resources that could be on Metrorail property soon after the transition takes effect. The FRA also has the authority to issue civil penalties, compliance orders, and emergency orders to correct safety hazards and remove track and equipment from service.

New Safety Oversight Would Take Years Under the FTA Framework

The TOC, the three jurisdictions, and the FTA all agree that standing up a stronger state-level safety oversight agency would require legislation in all three jurisdictions and would take several years. But there’s a safety gap now, because the TOC cannot provide the level of safety oversight that is needed for Metrorail.

Closing the Safety Gap Now

Our urgent recommendations, if acted upon, will provide safety oversight for WMATA and help close the safety gap. Riders of the Metrorail deserve no less.

You can read our press release on the recommendations here.