Why railroads avoid a federal safety incident reporting system

A lot more accidents and near misses occur on the nation's railroads than you might realize. The Federal Railroad Administration tracks incidents using what's k...

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A lot more accidents and near misses occur on the nation’s railroads than you might realize. The Federal Railroad Administration tracks incidents using what’s known as the Confidential Close Call Reporting System or C3RS. But the Government Accountability Office found that only a handful of railroads participate, so there’s a big gap in safety data. To get more on this, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with GAO’s Director of Physical Infrastructure Issues, Elizabeth Repko.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Repko, good to have you back.

Biza Repko: Thanks, Tom. Great to be here.

Tom Temin: And first of all, how many railroads are there in the country? And how many would the Federal Railroad Administration like to have reporting to this, and how many actually do report into the system?

Biza Repko: So we took a look in our report at the number of railroads that participate in the confidential close call reporting system, and we found that only 23 of the nearly 800 railroads in the country participate. And notably, none of the largest railroads in the country, which are the freight railroads known as the class 1 railroads participate.

Tom Temin: I was going to ask you, it must be only the big guys that participate. But in fact, they’re the ones that don’t?

Biza Repko: They are the ones that don’t. And when we asked the Federal Railroad Administration about participation rates, they told us that there is a lot of room to grow in the program. And that increasing membership is their number one priority now to the Federal Railroad Administration, they will say the program is important whether or not the class 1 railroads participate in the program, because it can be very useful to smaller or medium sized railroads.

Tom Temin: And the larger, the non-participants told you, told the GAO that they don’t participate, for what reasons?

Biza Repko: They told us several reasons. First, one of the reasons is that they told us that they have similar internal reporting systems that allow their employees to report about close calls. They’re much like C3RS. So they felt that C3RS might be duplicative or burdensome or confusing to employees, for them to have two systems. They also cited some concerns with protections that are in the program. And these are protections that allow employees to report information without a fear of discipline. But we also found that there were some railroads that were unaware of the program. So as part of our work, we talked to about 31 railroads, we just wanted to talk to them about the program, what they knew about it, ideas they had about it. And we found about a quarter of the people we talked to had little or no awareness of the program. So there may be some folks out there who could benefit from the program, but they’re unaware of the program.

Tom Temin: And presumably, the Chessie Systems and the Norfolk Southerns do know about it, but they just choose not to be in there.

Biza Repko: We spoke with all of the class 1s, and none of the class ones participate. And they do choose not to participate primarily because they cited to us having internal systems that are similar.

Tom Temin: Well, the question is, how can anyone as an industry then benefit from their internal systems, it might help them but it sounds to me like they’re worried that it will get out into the public, and they’ll be exoriated for lack of safety, or whatever the case might be, rightly or wrongly, that seems to be what they fear happening. Do you think?

Biza Repko: Well, I think that they would say that they get information from their internal systems more quickly. One of the things that happens with the C3RS program, because one of the Cs is confidentiality, is that it takes some time to de identify the reports that are received into C3RS. So the railroads that don’t participate told us with their internal systems, they can more quickly react to the things that they find out, and they’re able to make those safety changes more efficiently.

Tom Temin: I wonder if in deidentifying the information, would it still be possible to identify someone, some railroad because of particular equipment they might have? Or well, we don’t have that type of XYZ coupler or this type of rail car, they do. So haha, it’s got to be them.

Biza Repko: When we spoke to some folks about their participation or lack thereof, they did express to us some concerns about confidentiality. We did speak with the Federal Railroad Administration who has a third party who deidentifies the information, they told us they take deidentification very seriously and that they’ve never had an issue with confidentiality. Still, that is a concern for some of the railroads and the railroad employees who don’t participate.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Elizabeth Repko. She is director of physical infrastructure issues at the Government Accountability Office. And just briefly, if you would review the number of incidents that are reported each year that do come in from the 23 railroads that do participate.

Biza Repko: Well, looking at the information that does come in, we found that over the past 20 years, a leading cause of accidents and incidents in the rail industry is human error. And human error can be a variety of things, but it also can be something that comes from a close call, and a close call can be something like speeding or missing a speed restriction. And so that’s the reason why Federal Railroad Administration wants to be focused on those close calls, because they feel like if they get reporting about close calls, you can catch an incident before you get into an accident. And that’s where you can be more proactive related to safety.

Tom Temin: And what are the range of things that might be reported here, say a speeding train obviously, might not make a curve. And then we’ve seen that happen in recent years. And that’s a disaster or a crossing incident. I mean, sometimes there are suicides or animals on trains, and nobody can control that. Does the reporting system cover that whole range of things? And does that include incidents within rail yards, where a lot of slow motion is happening? Have lots of trains close together?

Biza Repko: Well, for the purposes of the C3RS program, there are very specific definitions of what a close call is, like we talked about, it’s a situation that could become more serious, could become more averse and could have a consequent to railroad safety. You gave some examples, examples are missing a speed restriction, could be something like going above the maximum speed that there is there are certain types of events, though that are not eligible to report it to the C3RS program as a close call, because they’re reportable under other Federal Railroad Administration regulations. An example of that would be something like employee behavior involving alcohol or controlled substances that’s covered under FRA regulation. It’s not covered under C3RS.

Tom Temin: What if somebody in the yard throws a switch the wrong way and two trains mash into each other?

Biza Repko: Well, if two trains were to hit each other, that would be an accident, that would be reportable. If someone were to throw a switch and something didn’t happen, that could be a close call. And you would want someone to report that close call, so you could examine the context, understand the circumstances that were happening, and maybe figure out some corrections to that action so that it doesn’t cause an accident.

Tom Temin: And getting back to the Federal Railroad Administration, if greater participation could be pulled out of the industry. And 799 railroads reported instead of just 23, what public benefit do you think would accrue from that? Or what is the FRA think would be the benefit?

Biza Repko: Well, you know, the FRA told us that more participants means more reports. More reports means more safety information, more safety information means more ways that you could come up with corrective actions to stop events before they become accidents. They’ve certainly acknowledged that to us and they are trying to seek broader participation in the program. We thought that they could communicate better about the information of the program, the benefits that they see now, not just to the participants of the program, but to the wider rail industry, so that those benefits could be realized on a broader basis.

Tom Temin: Is there any thought of making this database and reporting system operated by some sort of third party under federal auspices, but it would be reported to and not I guess, in the railroads view, be a federal database, some sort of an industry association type of thing. And then the analytics done on the data could be done for everybody’s benefit?

Biza Repko: Well, the database is operated by a third party, and there is a public database, that third party is NASA. And NASA collects and deidentifies the information. The idea is that you want to get more people to provide information to the database so that there’s more rich information coming out of it, the Federal Railroad Administration will concede if we only have 23, railroads that are part of it, you’re really only getting a subset of what’s going on in the industry. And you may not be able to draw as broad lessons, as would be advantageous to draw from the system.

Tom Temin: And by the way, is Amtrak, one of the entities that does not report.

Biza Repko: Amtrak is one of the entities that does report to the system.

Tom Temin: OK, so I guess they’re maybe not class 1, but more people ride those and ride the freight rails, although there’s a few that ride the freight rails jumping on when they go by slow, but otherwise, we do know in the passenger service then, what’s going on. And what about regional commuter railroads, do any of those report?

Biza Repko: There are passenger and commuter rails that report to the system. Yes. And so one of the things to think about when you’re thinking about the C3RS information is it’s about the freight rail, yes, and close calls that could happen in a freight rail system. But like you said, it could also be beneficial for passenger or commuter rails, for passengers who ride those systems.

Tom Temin: And sometimes it’s all on the same tracks anyway, the freight in the commuter railroads, and mostly Amtrak uses freight tracks, except in the Northeast Corridor. And while I’m getting my mind around the fact that NASA is the database operator, and not some entity in the Transportation Department. That’s maybe for another subject. What were your main recommendations here?

Biza Repko: Well, our main recommendations were for the Federal Railroad Administration to improve the way that they communicate information from the program. We felt that they could communicate better with now non-participants and someone may wonder why would you want to communicate with non-participants? And the reason is because studies have safety reporting system in industries, such as aviation or industries like chemical processing, they suggest that the more broadly you disseminate the information, more people know, more advantageous that can be to everyone. And so we made recommendations for them to disseminate information, like their success stories and disseminate more safety information.

Tom Temin: Just a blue sky question to wrap up, there seems like there could be some synergy in this whole topic of reporting incidents to the government for the benefit of the entire industry, in some kind of de-dentified way. I mean, CISA, at Homeland Security is trying to get infrastructure entities to report cybersecurity incidents. And that’s been a long struggle 20 some years to the federal government, it seems like there should be an Incident Reporting Council, regardless of whether it’s cybersecurity or train wrecks, for showing the benefits of this and getting private sector entities to agree that it can be helpful without destroying their businesses.

Biza Repko: Well, I would say that looking at the leading practices that we found for safety reporting systems, it’s very important to have de-identified information, to offer some level of confidentiality, to analyze that information and disseminate it as broadly as you can. And that is across a variety of industries.

Tom Temin: And once again, how many incidents are reported by the railroads that do report each year?

Biza Repko: So of the 23, who participate in total, we’re seeing thousands of near misses a year.


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