Remarks of Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
before the Senior Staff of Norfolk Southern Corporation
Roanoke, Virginia, August 14, 1998
Good morning, Mr. Tobias and senior staff of the Norfolk Southern. Thank you for the opportunity to visit with you today and to see your railroad’s safety programs.
I am well aware that the Norfolk Southern has been a leader in railroad safety. Your railroad’s safety record is reflected in the nine consecutive annual Harriman Awards as the top railroad in Group A, which comprises railroads whose employees worked 15 million-employee hours or more each year. I have been associated with the Harriman Awards for a good portion of my tenure on the Board.
The Safety Board has been investigating rail accidents since its inception 31 years ago. In that time, the nation’s railroads have made great safety strides. Yet, still, in 1997, more than 700 persons were killed in association with rail operations, not counting the 450 who died in grade crossing accidents. Clearly, both government and industry have more to do.
One of the subjects that I have stressed during my tenure as the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board is "Corporate Culture." Corporate culture is not easily defined. The term more or less describes the characteristics of one company or organization that distinguishes it from another organization. Or, put more plainly, "the way things are done around here."
Although you may not see the term in a Board report that describes "corporate culture," the Safety Board does investigate, and always has investigated, how culture may have set the stage for accidents. We do look at management practices, policies, and attitudes. And while we use the term "management" broadly, we understand that the best management in the world cannot overcome the influences of a corporate culture that is bent on emphasizing other attributes over safety.
One of the earliest accidents that highlighted problems in corporate culture, although that term had not yet been invented, was the sinking of the TITANIC 86 years ago. A ship billed as "unsinkable" proved to be anything but, and on its maiden voyage yet. The company emphasized speed over prudence, had lifeboats for barely half the ship’s complement and didn’t even equip its lookouts with binoculars.
In the early 1980s, the Safety Board investigated the crash of a commuter airliner in Illinois that killed all 10 persons aboard. We learned that within minutes after takeoff from Springfield, Illinois, the airplane lost its two electrical generators, and rather than return to Springfield the captain elected to continue the flight on battery power.
Although there was no evidence that the captain had been directed to circumvent or ignore FAA rules, the NTSB learned that captains who had taken weather-related delays were questioned by the airline’s management and asked to explain their conduct. In fact, this captain had a commendation in his files from management for his efforts to maintain schedules. And although the airline had created a management structure to oversee maintenance, it existed on paper only. Key inspector positions were unfilled.
This accident showed us that transportation companies can, through their actions, communicate to their employees an attitude that subsequently influences the degree to which employees comply with operating rules and with safe operating practices. Airlines and other organizations that question those who may be willing to risk on-time arrivals in the interests of safety, even if no further action is taken, may suggest to their personnel that safety is secondary to on-time performance.
Corporate culture is important in every mode of transportation, and it can have influences even in minor ways. To give an example a little closer to home, your railroad recently had a serious collision involving track inspection equipment and a train. The hi-rail vehicle struck the standing train at a fairly high rate of speed, seriously injuring the persons in the vehicle. A significant contributor to their injuries was the fact that neither of them was wearing a seat belt.
While common sense alone should have directed the operators to be wearing seat belts in such a situation, their lack of restraint use was not a violation of Norfolk Southern’s policies, as NS apparently did not require seat belt use on this type of vehicle. I am sure you have revisited this policy since then, as I understand that all occupants of other Norfolk Southern vehicles are required to wear seat belts when traveling on public roads and highways. But it again underscores the importance of delivering the safety message from the top.
We know at the Safety Board that the railroad industry has made many operational improvements that have resulted in significant safety gains. But as seen in the commuter airline and hi-rail vehicle examples, it is my firm belief that changes in corporate culture is where we need to concentrate.
In closing, I would like to thank Norfolk Southern for advancing safety. I understand that only recently your railroad finished posting 1-800 emergency telephone numbers at all grade crossings on your system, thus meeting the Safety Board’s recommendation issued as the result of a grade crossing accident in Sycamore, South Carolina.
Just last month, the NTSB issued a safety study on passive grade crossings. We found that a systematic approach that includes replacement of crossings with bridges, closure, installation of active warning devices, improved signage, and intelligent transportation systems technology may decrease the number of accidents and injuries at passive grade crossings. The placement of 1-800 numbers at all Norfolk Southern grade crossings might seem like a low tech approach to the problem, but I assure you it will prove to be effective, and I congratulate you for your accomplishment.
Thank you for inviting me and for this most enjoyable visit.