Too many people working on or around railroad tracks, such as train crews, maintenance-of-way employees, and mechanical workers, are getting killed or injured in preventable accidents involving train or equipment movement. Many of these workers were conducting routine maintenance or switching operations when they were struck. Although rail worker fatalities have declined overall in recent years, we continue to see some recurring safety issues in our accident investigations, highlighting the need for better worker protections.
To better protect roadway workers (those who maintain the track), the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) implemented Roadway Worker Protection Regulations in 1997; however, since then, more than 50 roadway workers have been killed. Meanwhile, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has yet to establish any specific regulations covering roadway worker protections.
Many of the accidents we've investigated have also involved train approach warning (TAW) systems, which are vulnerable to human errors, such as miscalculating site distance and generally underestimating the time needed for workers to clear tracks. We have long been concerned with the risks of using these systems as the primary form of worker protection, especially because they lack safety redundancy. Trains travel at deceivingly high speeds, and without proper warning, workers may not have enough time to react. The FRA and FTA need to require railroads to implement technology to provide safety redundancy.
Another recurrent issue that we see in our investigations is the need to address training and scheduling practices. Industry needs to ensure that job briefings are done correctly and that procedures are in place to audit those briefings. Additionally, watchmen/lookouts should receive proper training and have the required equipment. Railroads and transit agencies must develop work schedules and limitations based on science to prevent fatigued workers from being eligible to work overtime.
Operations and Mechanical Crews
Like roadway workers, operations crews and mechanical workers have also been killed in preventable accidents. One issue requiring attention is spacing between train crews and rail cars carrying hazardous materials. Although the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA) requires buffer cars between train crews and hazardous materials, the agency has also issued a regulatory interpretation that provides for a much shorter distance between hazardous materials and train crews. We believe PHMSA needs to withdraw its regulatory interpretation so railroads will be required to implement a minimum of five cars as a buffer between train crews and highly hazardous flammable material, at least until PHMSA determines the appropriate separation distance to keep train crews safe.
Lessons Learned: NTSB Investigations
The following accidents and report best exemplify why this safety improvement is needed.
Long Island Rail Road Roadway Worker Fatality
Queens Village, NY | June 2017
BNSF Railway Roadway Worker Fatalities
Edgemont, SD | January 2017
Using Technology to Protect Maintenance-of-Way Employees, Amtrak/Backhoe Collision
Chester, PA | April 2016
Placement of DOT-111 Tank Cars in High Hazard Flammable Trains and the Use of Buffer Cars for the Protection of Train Crews | December 2020
Stats to Know
Roadway workers killed in 52 accidents occurring between 1997 and 2017 (Source: FRA)
NTSB investigations involving railroad and transit worker fatalities in 2020
Workers killed in switching operations as a result of close/no clearance situations—the most frequent cause of fatalities (Source: Switching Operations Fatality Analysis, a work group between FRA and railroad associations)
Our Solutions . . . Take Action Now!
The FRA, FTA, and PHMSA must act now on our recommendations to establish adequate roadway worker and operations crew protections. If they don't address these deficiencies, we will continue to see more accidents and incidents resulting in worker deaths. Meanwhile, industry doesn't need to wait to protect workers. Improved training for watchmen/lookouts, for example, and more comprehensive briefings will help prevent these accidents.
See our specific detailed
Updated December 23, 2022