Maritime & Transport / Rail

How technology, regulation and data is helping improve rail safety in the US

John Tunna, FRAAlthough the US has seen a significant decline in train accidents over in the last decade, a number of recent deadly derailments have renewed discussions on the role of technology and regulation in mitigating against human error.  In 2008, Congress passed a law mandating that systems, known as positive train control, be installed by commuter and freight railroads by 2015.

As operators work towards meeting this safety mandate, Dr John Tunna, Director Research & Development at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) USA joins us to discuss the safety successes and challenges that remain.

Over the last decade, train accidents in the US have declined by 43 percent. What have been some of the key drivers in improving the rail industry’s overall safety performance?

There have been numerous contributors to this success.  The enduring partnership and collaboration between industry and government is the foundation for many of the gains that have been achieved. While the railroad industry has driven many improvements through the adoption of new technology and practices, the significant progress made is without question, also attributable to new performance-based Federal regulations and improved, data-driven oversight by the FRA.  This is also true of the R&D program.  FRA-sponsored research projects have facilitated the development and introduction of improved materials for components such as rails and wheels that have reduced failures and accident rates.  New inspection technology has been introduced to find equipment and infrastructure defects before they cause failure.

Despite these improvements, rail accidents do still occur. How does the FRA work with other government agencies in closing any safety gaps?   

FRA works with many other government agencies toward that goal.  Among them, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) which investigates major accidents and issues recommendations to FRA, railroads and other stakeholders.  We also work very closely with other U.S. DOT modal agencies such as the Research and Innovative Technology Administration on common areas of interest and concern such as fatigue-mitigation and distraction, and the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration on regulations regarding the transportation of HAZMAT by rail.

The role of technology was highlighted by the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 that requires railways to adopt positive train control technology by 2015. What has been the industry’s response to installing this technology?  

The railroads are committed to implementing this technology.  Exhaustive efforts are underway to finalize the scope of implementation.

What is the FRA’s approach in applying science and engineering to improve safety?

Science and engineering principles provide the basis for everything we do.  They also lead directly to new technology that the industry implements without the need for regulation.

Is there a link between the FRA’s approach to managing risk and prioritising research needs?

Yes.  FRA’s R&D program and priorities are focused on system safety and risk reduction, and our decisions are made in terms of a project’s timeliness and the likelihood of success in achieving overarching strategic goals.

How does the FRA capture national rail safety data and use it to improve safety?

FRA requires railroads to routinely report a very substantial universe of accidents and incidents.  FRA systematically collects, audits and analyzes  this data, as well as its own data captured during field observations, to allocate inspection and other resources,  perform cost-benefit studies to justify regulations, and determine the need for research programs.  In addition, FRA makes reportable accident/incident data publicly available and invites others to use it for evaluative purposes.

Some commentators have highlighted that about 40 percent of train accidents are caused by human error and that no technology will be able to engineer people out of the equation. What are your thoughts on the role technology plays in leveraging safety?
P14M04 - Rail Safety BannerAny new technology needs to be rigorously tested, applied thoughtfully and with attention to the human-machine interface.  Properly designed, configured and maintained technological systems such as Positive Train Control are capable of mitigating most, but not all human errors in the complex and highly varied U.S. railroad operating environment.  To address the extra-technological challenges posed by human factors, FRA is fostering safety culture improvement in the industry with risk reduction and system safety initiatives like the Confidential Close Call Reporting System.

John Tunna will provide an update on the US’ regulatory environment at Rail Safety 2014. His presentation will follow on from Rob Andrews, CEO, National Rail Safety Regulator and provide a timely comparison between the US and Australian approaches to regulation over rail safety.

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