Remarks of
Honorable Mark V. Rosenker

Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board
At the
International Railroad Safety Conference
Denver, CO
October 6, 2008

 


Good morning.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank Bob VanderClute of the Association of American Railroads for inviting me to speak, and to welcome you.  

This conference provides a great opportunity for leaders in the railroad industry, from around the world, to share best practices, and to learn from each other about actions that can be taken to address common safety issues.

I am happy to note that overall there has been a general improvement in railroad safety in this country.

There has been a general downward trend in railroad employee fatalities in the United States over the past quarter of a century. 

  1. In 1980, there were 97 employee fatalities. 
  2. In 1990, there were 40 employee fatalities.
  3. In 2007, there were 17 employee fatalities. 

The number of grade crossing collisions in the United States has decreased from over 10,000 in 1980 to 2,700 last year.  And, the number of grade crossing fatalities has decreased by more than half, from 833 fatalities in 1980 to 339 last year. 

Further, in 2007, train accident rates were down by over 10 percent from 2006.  This represents a decrease in train accidents for 3 years in row, a good trend, after several years of increasing train accidents just a decade ago. 

However, and I know that you will agree with me, that more must be done to improve railroad safety. Our goal should be zero fatalities. 

Safety improvements don’t occur without hard work, and we should never be satisfied with the status quo.  We must always strive for improvement, as so clearly demonstrated by a tragic railroad accident just 24 days ago.

A passenger train and a freight train collided head-on in California.  Twenty-five people were killed and more that 100 were injured. Our accident investigation is on-going, and there is much work to do before we can determine the probable cause. But I can tell you that the safety issues we examine in this accident are likely to include some of the same safety issues that we have examined in previous accidents.

Over the years, causal factors in many accidents have been attributed to train crew mistakes and inadequate operating procedures. 

We have made safety recommendations to improve the qualification, training and oversight of employees.  We also have made safety recommendations to improve operational procedures. And, generally, improvements in these areas have occurred over the years.

So, how do we further reduce train accidents? 

I believe, that new technologies can provide some of the biggest safety improvements.

Positive Train Control

Positive train control systems have great potential to reduce the number of serious train accidents. 

Human performance failures, directly linked to fatigue, sleep apnea, the use of medication, reduced visibility, and distractions such as cell phone use, have all been identified as causal factors in train accidents.

Positive train control systems can provide safety redundancy to override mistakes by human operators and prevent train collisions and over-speed derailments. Positive train control systems can also protect employees in track work zones.

In fact, positive train control systems have been on the Safety Board’s list of Most Wanted Transportation Safety Improvements for 18 years.  We have recommended that priorities be established for the installation of positive train control in high-risk corridors, such as those where commuter and intercity passenger trains operate.

Significant research, development, and testing has been ongoing. I have ridden in the front of a test train equipped with PTC. I am convinced that this technology, used for many years in passenger operations, can now be applied to freight train operations. 

I know, that several industry leaders in this room today have committed to moving forward on the development and installation of PTC.  They have recognized that the time to move forward on this technology is now. You are to be congratulated.

It is time for the entire industry to commit to the development and implementation of positive train control systems. You, the industry, must now agree on a format that allows interoperability between systems so that trains can seamlessly move from one railroad to another.

Last week the United States Congress passed legislation that requires Class I railroads and scheduled commuter passenger railroads to develop and submit a plan for implementing a positive train control system by 2015, and that the plan address the interoperability issue.   It is time to get it done.

As many of you know, I strongly believe that the development and implementation of technology is important to improving safety across all modes, and I want to take this opportunity to briefly discuss just a few other examples of how I believe, technology can improve rail.

Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) Braking

I am encouraged by the progress being made on the development and use of Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) Braking.  ECP brakes can provide opportunities to improve the management of in-train forces, which in turn can reduce train handling derailments. EPC will allow for shorter stopping distances which could prevent collisions, reduce the opportunities for runaway trains, and have the potential to reduce the severity of accidents that do occur. 

Unlike conventional train braking, during ECP braking all cars brake simultaneously, through a hard-wired electronic pathway down the length of the train thus eliminating the run-in of slack from the rear of the train. 

ECP braking systems may also offer benefits in car maintenance, fuel savings, and network capacity. Their use could significantly enhance rail safety and efficiency.

Acoustic Bearing Detectors, Wheel impact Detectors, and Truck Performance Detectors

Technology also is being used more and more to asses the performance of equipment and to ensure that repairs are made before a failure occurs. For example, acoustic bearing detectors are used to assess the condition of wheel bearings as a train moves down the track.  Signature sounds emitted from wheel bearings are characterized so that the potential severity of a condition can be understood, and appropriate mitigation taken.

Wheel impact detectors are used to identify wheels with flat spots that may be exerting undesired stresses into the wheel and/or rail.  Data is assessed to determine if immediate action is needed or if the wheel can be monitored and scheduled for repair on a future date. 

Laser technology is used to assess truck steering properties, identify worn or improperly working components, and alert users when trucks fail to meet desired standards, before a serious problem occurs.

Each of these technologies alone, provide useful information for assessing the safe condition of equipment.  But when multiple systems are used together, the overall assessment of a train can be significantly improved. Further, when specific conditions are documented and shared among the different carriers, equipment can be continuously monitored to ensure that deficiencies are  repaired timely, no matter where it is in the railroad system.  

Intelligent Vehicles – Grade Crossing Safety

Finally, most grade crossing collisions are caused by motorist errors.  Reducing the number of at grade crossings, the addition of active warning systems, and public education programs, have all played important roles in reducing accidents. Continued emphasis is needed in all three programs.   

However, I believe that new technology, such as intelligent transportation systems (ITS), can also play an important role in saving lives at grade crossings. Why can’t smart vehicles warn drivers when trains are approaching, and direct the drivers to take appropriate action. This is a safety issue suggested by the Safety Board in a Safety Study on Passive Grade Crossings 10 years ago.

Just think how far computer and GPS technology has developed in the past 10 years. I urge you to be forward thinking. Work closely with the highway industry to develop useful, intelligent transportation safety systems that can prevent accidents at grade crossings.

Conclusion

Improving rail safety is an issue that we can all embrace.

We live in exciting times.  There are many new technologies on the horizon that can be used to improve safety.  It is up to you, to develop and implement new technologies.

In fact, while I am in Colorado, I plan to visit the Transportation Test Center in Pueblo to learn more about all of the exciting research that they are doing.  If you have an opportunity to visit that site, I encourage you to do so. 

Thank you for the opportunity to be here. 

 

Speeches & Testimony