Category Archives: Rail Safety

Ensuring Transportation Safety, Even During a Crisis

By Member Jennifer L. Homendy

For the past few weeks, I’ve woken up every morning to a text message from the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) updating riders on its continued service and modified schedule. It’s hard not to think of all the VRE and Amtrak locomotive engineers and conductors that I’ve come to recognize (or know by name—Hi, Willie and Samantha!) over the years, and how dedicated they are to continuing to serve the public during this national emergency. You and your colleagues across the country are heroes. Thank you for all you do.

The safety of transportation workers across all modes is extremely important especially during times of crisis. Our nation’s transportation workforce is essential to getting critical goods to states and local communities and to ensuring that those serving on the frontlines of this pandemic, like medical personnel, grocery store employees, and other essential personnel, are able to continue the fight against COVID-19. Without all of them, we’d be in a much more dire situation. Still, we need to make sure that the transportation workers who are putting their lives at risk daily to make deliveries or get people to work are also safe. That not only means providing them with necessary personal protective gear, but also ensuring any regulatory waivers do not jeopardize their safety or the safety of others.

Since the start of this national emergency, many transportation entities facing staffing shortages due to illness and the need to quarantine have requested emergency relief from certain safety regulations. These entities cite concerns about their ability to deliver critical goods and materials necessary for the country’s welfare while meeting regulatory requirements for inspections, training, and maintenance, to name a few. Although regulatory relief from certain requirements may be necessary during this difficult time, I urge the US Department of Transportation (DOT) to carefully review each request and put measures in place to ensure that the safety of transportation workers, and all others who must travel, remains a priority.

We are all being challenged in ways that we could not have imagined a month ago. People are staying safe by traveling only when absolutely necessary and maintaining a safe social distance from others. Those in the transportation industry are also doing what they can to stay safe while continuing to do the important work of moving the people and goods that keep our nation pushing forward during this crisis.

It’s important that any regulatory relief the DOT determines is appropriate is only temporary. This crisis can seem overwhelming, but as a nation, we will prevail. It’s important that when our lives start to take the path back to “normal,” safety regulations—many of which the NTSB has long advocated for following tragic crashes—are reinstituted. Temporary measures to address a crisis should not become the new normal. An efficient transportation network is key to our nation’s success during this challenging time, but we must not forget the importance of ensuring the safety of transportation workers and the traveling public both now and in the future.

A Tribute to NTSB Employees

By Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

What do you get when you cross a transportation-related life-saving mission with some of the best people in the federal government?

 The National Transportation Safety Board, of course!

 And that is no April Fool’s joke.

 On this day 53 years ago, the NTSB was formed by an act of Congress. The agency’s mission is to investigate every civil aviation accident in the United States and significant accidents in other modes of transportation, determine their probable causes, and issue safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents. In addition, we conduct special studies concerning transportation safety, and we coordinate the resources of the federal government and other organizations to provide assistance to victims and their family members impacted by major transportation disasters. We also adjudicate appeals from civil enforcement actions by the Federal Aviation Administration and the United States Coast Guard.

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Since 1967, the NTSB has investigated more than 149,000 aviation accidents and thousands of surface transportation accidents. We’ve issued more than 15,000 safety recommendations—the vast majority of which ultimately are implemented. Some of the safety measures that have arisen, at least in part, from our safety recommendations include:

Aviation

  • Floor-level escape lighting, fire-blocking seat coverings, lavatory smoke detectors, stronger cabin seats
  • Terrain avoidance and warning systems requirements
  • Inert gas use to eliminate fuel tank explosions
  • Shoulder harnesses in general aviation

Highway

  • Raising the legal drinking age to 21 and .05 percent BAC drinking and driving laws
  • Child passenger safety
  • Enforcement of commercial vehicle regulations

Marine

  • Boating-while-intoxicated laws
  • Cruise ship fire safety
  • Emergency position-indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs) on vessels

Railroad & Rail Transit

  • Positive train control
  • Passenger rail car safety standards
  • Toll-free emergency number posting at grade crossings
  • Tank car enhancements

Pipeline

  • One-call systems before excavation (“Call 811 Before You Dig”)
  • Integrity management programs
  • Facility response plan effectiveness and oversight

HAZMAT

  • Hazard communications training for first responders, community planning, and preparedness

I’m often reminded that you can have an important mission, but if you don’t have devoted, talented employees, you really don’t have a great agency. Fortunately, the NTSB has both.

Our mission generates dedication, which often translates to retention; some of our longest-serving employees have been at the agency for over 40 years. But don’t misinterpret that longevity as complacency. In the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, of the 70% of NTSB employees who completed the survey, 97% responded favorably to the statement, “When needed I am willing to put in the extra effort to get a job done.” Bear in mind that in many cases, “extra effort” is in addition to routine travel to remote accident sites with only hours’ notice!

During more than 13 years at the agency, including the past 3 as Chairman, I’ve had the pleasure to be surrounded by, and to work with, these professionals. As Chairman, I have relied on them to help formulate strategic decisions, advise me on technical details, and echo and amplify my own thirst for safety improvements.

Many of our air safety investigators are pilots and aircraft mechanics themselves—and each of them can tear down an engine. Several have built their own airplanes. Many of our highway safety investigators come from law enforcement backgrounds. Our marine investigators generally maintain licenses first earned as deck and engine officers or have Coast Guard investigative or regulatory experience. Our railroad and pipeline investigators are veterans of those industries and their regulators as well. Although doctoral degrees are common throughout the agency, the environment is as far as you can imagine from an ivory tower.

The NTSB workforce is among the best in the federal government, which is what fuels my desire to make the NTSB the best place to work in the federal government—even if, for now, we have temporarily moved that workplace into our homes.

Today, like many workforces, we are physically distant from one another, but we are not alone. We are physically separate, but we will get through this together. I’m grateful for the dedication and resilience of every one of NTSB’s employees. And that, too, is no April Fool’s joke.

Safe Travels This Holiday Season

At the NTSB, we determine the cause of transportation crashes and accidents, and issue safety recommendations that, if implemented, could save lives and minimize injuries. Unfortunately, we see far too many tragedies that could have been easily prevented. As we head into the holiday season, Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg and Member Jennifer Homendy share some travel safety tips to keep you and your loved ones safe on our roads, on our rails, on our waterways and in the air.

 

 

 

 

 

 

PTC, 50 Years After Darien

By Member Jennifer Homendy

Exactly 50 years ago today, two Penn Central commuter trains collided in Darien, Connecticut. Four people died and 43 others were injured. The collision led to our first recommendation related to positive train control (PTC). Today, I joined Senator Richard Blumenthal at a commemoration of the accident in New Haven. The senator and I share the same goal: to see PTC implementation completed.

In the past half century, we have investigated more than 150 PTC-preventable accidents that have taken the lives of more than 300 people and injured 6,700 others. PTC was on our first Most Wanted List in 1990, and it’s still on our Most Wanted List today.

In 2008, when it became clear that, even after a series of deadly crashes, the railroads and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) weren’t going to voluntarily implement PTC, Congress took action and made PTC implementation mandatory. The railroads have made progress—albeit slowly—in the past 11 years. Some have almost fully implemented PTC, but others lag far behind. The deadline for PTC implementation was extended to the end of 2018; however, if a railroad met certain benchmarks, it could qualify for a 24-month extension. Nearly all railroads satisfied the criteria to extend the deadline, which is now set for December 31, 2020.

The December 2020 extended deadline is fast approaching, yet a lot of work remains to be done. Some railroads are still installing equipment—which is a task that should’ve been completed by now. Railroads should be providing ongoing PTC training and actively working toward interoperability with other railroads on their lines. They should be getting their safety plans to the FRA for final certification and approval. Although there is a lot to accomplish over the next 16 months, our message is simple: No more extensions, no more excuses, and no more delays. It’s time to finish the job!

From the day that President Kennedy urged America to put a person on the moon to the day that Neil Armstrong took those historic steps, it was only 8 short years. Think about that—8 years to get a human to the moon. Yet, it’s been 50 since the accident in Darien, and we still haven’t managed to get PTC up and running on our country’s rails.

As I stood in my native Connecticut today, I thought about the four people killed there on August 20, 1969, a half century ago. It’s been over a decade since Congress mandated PTC, and the traveling public is still at unnecessary risk. It’s time for the railroads to finish the job.

August 20, 2019 Press Event in New Haven, Connecticut
In this photo, taken August 20, 2019, at Union Station in New Haven, Connecticut, NTSB Member Jennifer Homendy is with Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal at a press event to mark the fiftieth anniversary of a fatal train collision in Darien, Connecticut, and to call for the full implementation of Positive Train Control. NTSB photo by Stephanie Shaw

The Golden Spike at 150

By Member Jennifer Homendy

The ceremony for the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869; completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. At center left, Samuel S. Montague, Central Pacific Railroad, shakes hands with Grenville M. Dodge, Union Pacific Railroad (center right). (Source: Wikimedia)

On May 10, 1869, 150 years ago today, a golden spike was driven home at Promontory Summit, in what was then the Utah Territory, by Central Pacific Railroad President Leland Stanford. This momentous event joined the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads, completing the first transcontinental railroad, just 7 years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act authorizing land grants and government financing to US railroads for the purpose of joining the east and the west.

As we know, the project was a tremendous success, but it certainly had its challenges.

In 1863, another act established the gauge for the project at 4 ft., 8½ inches (which became the standard gauge). At the time, gauges varied among railways in the United States. The goal of the transcontinental railroad was to ensure that two railroads met in Utah and were “interoperable” when it came time to begin service. A small difference in width would mean no transcontinental railroad: passengers and freight would have to be offloaded to a new train when incompatible rails met, creating a bottleneck affecting thousands of miles of track.

It wouldn’t have inspired confidence in the transcontinental railroad if the four final spikes couldn’t be driven in because the railroad gauges didn’t match!

Leland Stanford, the man who drove the golden spike, went on to found Stanford University. He could not imagine the contributions to transportation that his namesake university would make, including those to the global positioning system used in positive train control (PTC) systems.

Just as the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads worked to ensure their track was seamless, today’s railroads are focused on implementing PTC by ensuring interoperability among many systems­—passenger, commuter, and freight trains must be able to seamlessly communicate and operate across all railroad networks.

PTC isn’t new. The NTSB has been urging railroads to implement it, in some form, since 1970, 1 year after the United States met President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the moon. Since then, the NTSB has investigated 152 PTC-preventable accidents that resulted in more than 300 fatalities and 6,700 injuries. PTC remains on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements.

Seven years passed between when Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act in 1862 to when the golden spike was driven home at Promontory Summit. Eight years passed from JFK’s speech to Congress about a moonshot in 1961 to Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the gray dust of the lunar surface. PTC was mandated by Congress in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. It has now been more than 10 years since the act was signed into law.

Today’s golden spike celebration might well feature photos of two locomotives posed head-to-head, as they were for the original golden spike celebration 150 years ago. Perhaps that would also be a fitting image to promote PTC, which, among other safety benefits, would automatically stop trains in time to prevent train-to-train collisions.

As we commemorate 1869’s golden spike, the NTSB continues to await implementation of fully operational PTC, which is long overdue. Let’s end the wait and start planning our own commemoration of the day we finally made all rail travel exponentially safer.

 

Add a Day of Remembrance for a Balanced Holiday Season

By Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

Every year, I hear that the holiday season has gotten too long—that holiday music, commercials, and sales begin too early. Traditionally, the season starts on Thanksgiving, the fourth Thursday of November.

 

I think the season should actually start even earlier this year—on the third Sunday in November, World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims. Why? Because to truly give thanks for what we have, we have to imagine losing it. Around the world, about 1.3 million people lose their lives in automobile crashes every year; 20 to 50 million more survive a crash with injuries, many of which are life-altering. Here in the United States, annual traffic deaths number around 37,000—more than 100 a day—and a motor vehicle crash is the single most likely way for a teen to die.

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If you’ve lost somebody to a crash, you probably need no special reminder. Your loved one will be missed at the holiday dinner table, on the way to the home of a friend or out-of-town relative, and throughout the holidays. But for the rest of us, the Day of Remembrance is a time to think of those needlessly lost on our roads.

I encourage us all to go beyond remembering those lost in highway crashes, to thinking of victims of transportation accidents in all modes who won’t be joining family and friends this holiday season. Before we give thanks next Thursday, let’s take a moment to remember those who have been lost, and then take steps to make our own holiday travel safer.

By Car

Fatigue, impairment by alcohol and other drugs, and distraction continue to play major roles in highway crashes. Here’s what you can do to keep yourself and those around you safe on the road.

  • If your holiday celebrations involve alcohol, ask a friend or family member to be your designated driver, or call a taxi or ridesharing service.
  • In a crash, seat belts (and proper child restraints) are your best protection. Always make sure that you and all of your passengers are buckled up or buckled in!
  • Make sure to use the right restraint for child passengers, and be sure it’s installed correctly. If you have doubts, ask a Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician.
  • Make sure you’re well rested! A fatigued driver is just as dangerous as one impaired by alcohol or other drugs.
  • Avoid distractions. In this video, survivor-advocates share their stories of personal loss—and the changes they’re working for now.
  • Don’t take or make calls while driving, even using a hands-free device. Set your navigation system before you start driving. If you’re traveling with others, ask them to navigate.

By Bus or Train

We’ve made recommendations to regulators and industry to improve passenger rail and motorcoach operations and vehicle crashworthiness, but travelers should know what to do in an emergency.

  • Pay attention to safety briefings and know where the nearest emergency exit is. If it’s a window or roof hatch, make sure you know how to use it.
  • If you’re unsure of where the exits are or how to use them, or if you didn’t receive a safety briefing, ask your driver or train conductor to brief you.
  • Always use restraints when they’re available!

By Air or Sea

Airline and water travel have become incredibly safe, but these tips can help keep you and your loved ones safe in an emergency.

  • When flying, make sure that you and your traveling companions have your own seats—even children under age 2.
  • Don’t forget your child’s car seat. The label will usually tell you whether your child car seat is certified for airplane use; the owner’s manual always has this information.
  • If you don’t know the rules for using a child’s car seat on your flight, call the airline and ask what you need to know.
  • Pay close attention to the safety briefing! Airline and marine accidents have become very rare, but you and your family can be safer by being prepared.
  • Whether you’re on an airplane or a boat, know where to find the nearest flotation device.

This holiday season, no matter how you plan to get where you’re going, remember that, for many, this time of year is a time of loss. Honor survivors and remember traffic crash victims by doing your best to make sure you—and those around you—make only happy memories on your holiday travels.

Ten Years Later: Remembering Chatsworth With Action

By  Member Jennifer Homendy

Ten years ago today, September 12, 2008, a Metrolink commuter train filled with passengers in Chatsworth, California, collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train. The collision took the lives of 25 people and injured 102 others. The cause: A texting engineer. A human operator making a human error.

On this 10th anniversary, we offer our condolences to all those who lost loved ones or were injured in the Chatsworth tragedy.

 

Photo of the Collision of Metrolink Train 111 With
Union Pacific

Although I was not a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board at that time, I was working tirelessly as the Staff Director of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials in the U.S. House of Representatives to mandate implementation of technology, called positive train control (PTC), which could have prevented the Chatsworth accident from occurring.

PTC is designed to automatically stop a train when a human operator fails to. Human error is the leading cause of all train accidents. Frustratingly, the NTSB has been recommending that railroads implement PTC to address human error-caused accidents for nearly 50 years.

In the wake of the Chatsworth collision and a number of others investigated by the NTSB, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which required freight, intercity passenger, and commuter railroads to implement PTC by the end of 2015. As the deadline approached, Congress extended it to 2018, with the possibility of further extensions until 2020. Now, as the new deadline approaches, PTC is still not fully implemented.

We know from railroad reports to the Federal Railroad Administration, the agency charged with regulating the railroads, that PTC is operational on only a small fraction of the railroad network.

Accidents, however, continue to occur. Since 2008, the NTSB has investigated 22 accidents that could have been prevented by PTC. Together, these accidents have resulted in 29 deaths, more than 500 injuries, and more than $190 million in property damage.

Tomorrow, Chairman Sumwalt will testify on Capitol Hill regarding the need to finish the job without further delay. Regrettably, nothing that the NTSB does can turn back the clock and change a tragic outcome; we can only urge that others be spared such an outcome in the future.

As the newest Member of the NTSB, I will continue to advocate for full implementation of PTC and for the safety recommendations we made as a result of the Chatsworth crash so that a similar tragedy is prevented in the future.

In the meantime, there is something you can do as we remember Chatsworth: eliminate distractions while operating a vehicle. Distraction continues to play a significant role in accidents.

Distracted driving kills thousands and injures hundreds of thousands every year. On the railroads, PTC is an effective backstop in case an operator is distracted, fatigued, impaired, or otherwise unable to take the right action. But operators must still adhere to strict procedures to minimize the chance of an accident.

On the highways, collision avoidance systems—forward collision warning systems and automatic emergency braking—are beginning to play a similar role to PTC. We think that these systems should be on every car, and we are working toward that outcome. But even without a collision avoidance system, you can take control by doing the right thing. Don’t send a text, make a call, or update your social media while driving. Strict laws aimed at preventing the use of portable electronic devices while driving and high-visibility enforcement can help, but ultimately, it’s up to each driver to drive attentively.

As we mark the 10th anniversary of the Chatsworth collision, we still have a long way to go to ensure the same kind of accident doesn’t happen again. But there are things we can do. We can insist railroads complete PTC implementation on all their tracks. We can choose vehicles with collision avoidance systems, and we can refuse to drive distracted.

Fatal collisions don’t end on impact; they echo through communities for years after the moment of a crash. But there can be hope as well as mourning in the echoes—hope for change that will prevent future tragedies. It will take all of us in transportation—professionals and the general public—to ensure the lessons learned from the Chatsworth tragedy result in that change.