Remarks by Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
at the Norfolk Southern Corporation's Annual Safety Awards Meeting
Virginia Beach, Virginia, February 28, 1996

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It is indeed an honor to be here today at Norfolk Southern's annual safety awards meeting.

For my part, I always enjoy meeting with railroad professionals, probably because the industry's in my blood. Before he died in 1945, my grandfather was a long-time section hand and conductor on the old L & N Railroad.

It is somewhat ironic that since I came to the Safety Board I have been to two accidents near my home in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Both of them involved tank car failures on Norfolk Southern rails. The first one occurred June 6, 1994, when a tank car failure released arsenic acid, which threatened our local water supply. I'm happy to say that your corporation responded quickly and appropriately to our recommendations.

As a result of our recommendations, Norfolk Southern has fully revised its systemwide emergency action plan for hazardous materials incidents, has established predetermined isolation tracks for each yard and terminal in the Virginia division, is experimenting with a spill containment pan that can be placed under a leaking tank car, has participated in emergency response drills in Chattanooga and other locations, and is now better able to assess the severity of hazmat releases and to take appropriate action. We closed all the recommendations and classified them Acceptable Action.

Early this month I went to Sweetwater, Tennessee, about an hour up the road from Chattanooga. On February 7, a tank car on the Norfolk Southern line released its entire load of 10,400 gallons of carbon disulfide. A half mile area around the site was evacuated, including 90 residents from a nursing home. The tank car had been visually inspected by NS personnel in the Chattanooga yard just before the accident, and was not observed to be leaking at that time. So far, we've learned that the tank car was last hydrostatically tested in 1990, when it was modified. We have open safety recommendations to the FRA, calling for improved tank car inspections and testing.

The track and material underneath the track was removed for disposal. New track was laid and the line is now open. The local water supply was not contaminated, but monitoring is continuing.

My association with your fellow workers on these two occasions convinced me of your commitment to safety. I believe all of us here are dedicated to safety, and the railroads can take pride in their overall safety record. But, as the railroad industry has recently learned, a good safety record can sometimes be a fragile commodity.

Since January 1, the Safety Board has launched investigators on 14 railroad accidents that resulted in 19 fatalities, 226 injuries and over $62 million in damages. Yesterday, I testified at a Senate hearing on railroad safety and the House will hold hearings next week on this string of tragic accidents .

One thing we've learned at the NTSB is that safety never takes a holiday -- it's a 365-day-a-year job.

The National Transportation Safety Board is mandated by Congress to investigate transportation accidents, determine probable cause of these accidents, perform oversight of government regulatory agencies, and issue safety recommendations to prevent similar accidents from recurring in the future. You have heard of our work in high-profile accidents like Mobile and Fox River Grove, Illinois, but these are just a part of our responsibilities. In the railroad mode alone, we conduct about 5 major investigations and 90 to 100 regional investigations each year.

In our 29-year history, the Safety Board has investigated thousands of railroad accidents; accidents that have resulted in deaths, injuries, and millions of dollars in damages and settlements. I am sure that I don't have to remind anyone in this room how costly railroad accidents can be -- both in human suffering and in monetary resources.

In recent years, the Safety Board has completed investigations and adopted reports on major railroad accidents that highlighted several important safety issues that I would like to discuss today.

I mention these because, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, "If we forget the past, we surrender the future."

No Safety Board discussion on railroad safety would be complete without talking about the merits of Positive Train Separation. We have been a strong advocate of advanced train control systems that will provide positive train separation and act as a safety net for human performance failures in the operation of trains. These systems would prevent accidents by overriding the engineer's actions or inactions, by controlling train speed and by preventing conflicts that could result in train collisions.

PTS has been on the Safety Board's list of Most Wanted transportation safety improvements since the list was formulated in 1990 and will remain there as long as there is progress to be made in the implementation of this important technology.

The urgency of this issue has been highlighted over and over in Safety Board investigations. The fatal train accidents that took place in Sugar Valley, Georgia; Corona, California; Knox, Indiana; Ledger, Montana; Thedford, Nebraska; and Marathon, Texas could ALL have been prevented if a fully developed PTS control system had been in place.

Three weeks ago I accompanied our Go-Team to begin the investigation of a collision between two commuter trains in Secaucus, New Jersey. The engineers of both trains and a passenger were killed; scores of other passengers were injured. Once again, positive train separation will be a major issue in this investigation. It appears one of the trains passed beyond a stop signal, exactly the kind of situation PTS is designed for. Another major issue is crew scheduling, which relates to the fatigue issues I'll discuss later.

Then, just 8 days later, an Amtrak train collided with a MARC commuter train in Silver Spring, Maryland, killing 11 people in the first car of the commuter train. Our preliminary findings indicate that the commuter train was traveling 63 miles per hour just before the accident, more than twice as fast as it should have been going. Again, a PTS very well might have prevented this accident.

The NTSB understands the reluctance of the railroad industry to make the substantial investment to implement PTS control systems on all mainline tracks nationwide, especially for a system many regard as solely safety-oriented. However, we believe that the payback on PTS control systems goes well beyond safety alone, providing very definite business benefits in fuel savings, dispatching, train pacing, and higher utilization of tracks that make this expensive system pay off in ways other than safety.

While the nation's attention was recently riveted to the issue of grade crossing safety after the schoolbus tragedy in Illinois last fall, grade crossing safety has long been very high on the Safety Board's agenda. The Board, as you may know, initiated the Operation Lifesaver program. One of the strong points of an agency like the Safety Board is that we can handle multi-modal issues. The intersection between rail and highway poses many safety challenges and deserves the serious attention we all are devoting to it.

In an accident we investigated in Florida, a vehicle became stuck on a grade crossing and was subsequently struck by a train. At the time of the accident, the manager for the trucking company was searching for a telephone number so that he could call the railroad and stop any oncoming train. He was not successful for a variety of reasons, but partly because he did not have the appropriate phone number.

Last spring, I stood among the wreckage of a similar accident. On May 2, 1995, northbound Amtrak passenger train 81, the "Silver Star," crashed into a tractor-lowboy trailer that had been stuck for more than 30 minutes at a passive public grade crossing near Sycamore, South Carolina. As a result of the collision and derailment, over 50 passengers were transported to area hospitals.

The circumstances of these two accidents beg the question: How can a truck driver whose vehicle has become lodged or otherwise hung up at a crossing contact the railroad quickly and efficiently to stop any oncoming train? One method that the Sycamore investigative team is exploring is posting an emergency telephone number and a grade crossing identification number at each crossing. A driver that became stuck or has an emergency situation could call a telephone number posted at the crossing to contact local emergency authorities or a railroad dispatching center, citing the crossing identification number posted there to identify the location of the problem and stop traffic on the rail line.

The Safety Board will adopt a final report on this accident at our Board meeting next week.

While grade crossing accidents might be considered a highway problem, they affect railroads the most, and railroads must be part of the solution.

The railroads have been generous in their support of Operation Lifesaver and other grade crossing programs in the past, but in these times of government downsizing and budget cuts, the railroads are going to have to become even more involved. They need to actively participate in the next level of safety -- whether by financing the development of positive train separation systems, or enhancing grade crossing safety.

In this regard, I was pleased to hear that Norfolk Southern already has posted 1-800 emergency numbers at active grade crossing locations and is now considering this improvement at passive grade crossing locations. Further, I also understand that Norfolk Southern has committed additional staff and resources to more fully explore ways to reduce the likelihood of serious grade crossing collisions.

As anyone who follows the news knows, we in Washington are in the midst of a movement to eliminate government regulations and avoid issuing new regulations. Unfortunately, this movement does not always clearly distinguish between unnecessary or obtrusive regulations, on the one hand, and regulations that are issued to address valid safety issues, on the other. As a result, some safety regulations are delayed for the wrong reasons.

Nevertheless, one way to enhance railroad safety without waiting for regulations to be issued is for railroads to act voluntary. A good example of this stemmed from an accident near Selma, North Carolina, where a loose container from one train struck an oncoming Amtrak locomotive, killing an engineer. As a result of that accident, the FRA listed 7 areas where improvements could be made by the railroad industry.

Rather then issuing recommendations to establish new regulations impacting intermodal operations, the Safety Board took a different approach. We contacted all of the Class I railroads in the United States and asked them to advise us of changes they would be making in their intermodal operations to address the 7 problem areas identified in the FRA's report. The letters from the Class I railroads are still coming in but all of them so far have voluntarily made substantial safety improvements to their intermodal operations without a formal regulation being issued by the FRA. The railroad industry's response proves that regulations are not always necessary to improve railroad safety.

Finally, I wish to personally congratulate Norfolk Southern for the achievement of some remarkable safety accomplishments: a record six consecutive E.H. Harriman Memorial gold medal awards for employee safety. I understand that no other Class 1 railroad has ever attained this high mark. Information provided to me indicates that your railroad has the lowest reportable injury frequency rate of all Class 1 railroads. The estimate for 1995 was 1.5 FRA reportable injuries per 200,000 hours, a rate that is 1/3 that of all U.S. railroads as a group.

I know that your commitment to safety is strong. But I encourage you to extend your outstanding record in employee safety to public safety as well. Recently, the Safety Board asked Norfolk Southern to assist us in a training program. We were more than pleased with the response of your railroad when you provided a locomotive simulator for the training of our highway and railroad investigators and made available to us several passive grade crossing locations for our on-site training module. This training will be invaluable during our upcoming passive crossing safety study. I am proud to participate in this safety awards meeting, I would like to personally recognize those Norfolk Southern employees who helped us, including Messrs. Steve Driskell, Gordon Keller, Sam Wooten, Danny Gilbert, and Bill Cannon.

In closing, let me salute each of you and remind you that when it comes to safety we all need to remember another one of Winston Churchill's great thoughts, his three word commencement speech: "Never give up."

 

Jim Hall's Speeches