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Remarks for the Annual Management Conference National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association, Inc., Miami, Florida
Marion C. Blakey
National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association, Inc., Annual Management Conference, Miami, Florida

Good morning. Let me begin by thanking you for inviting me to participate in your annual conference. I am delighted to be here. I also want to recognize and welcome the representatives from America's Short Line Railroads who are with us today.

Four months ago today, the people of America awoke hoping the events they witnessed the day before were merely a bad dream. As we have come to know too well, they were not, and that day ushered in a new focus on safety and security in our Nation's transportation infrastructure.

America's railroads have played a critical role in developing and protecting our Nation and its infrastructure. Freight trains hauled 181,400 tons of steel - - forged throughout the country - - to Greenville Yard in New Jersey, where it was floated on barges to Battery Park and used to construct the two largest buildings in the world.

Now, that same steel is again being loaded and hauled by our rail system - - this time as rubble. As our country responds to the terrorist attacks, the Nation's railroads are again being deployed - - by the Department of Defense - - to move machines of war that will protect our democratic way of life at home and abroad.

The National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association's role in protecting this Nation is crucial. Your efforts ensure the stability and future development of our vital rail system. Your work provides safe and secure transportation for America's passengers and freight.

The NTSB and the NRC enjoy a unique partnership. We share the same objective - - ensuring the safety of our fellow citizens and freight as they travel on our nation's railroad infrastructure. This is no small task - - throughout North America, there are more 600 railroads operating over more than 173,000 miles of track.

For more than 30 years, the Safety Board's mission has been to prevent accidents. We conduct thorough, independent, and objective investigations and issue recommendations to correct the problems we discover. Together with organizations that provide specific expertise needed in particular investigations, our small agency of less than 500 employees has investigated thousands of aviation, railroad, marine, highway, and pipeline accidents.

In the case of rail accidents, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), railroads, manufacturers, and labor organizations and associations are often called upon to provide assistance to NTSB investigators.

Many members of the NRC participate as parties in our investigations. For example, Sperry Rail Service played an important role in our recent investigation of the Howard Street Tunnel fire and train derailment in Baltimore. Working with our investigators, Sperry examined various forms of data to determine track and rail conditions at the time of the accident.

Other members, such as Hulcher Services and RJ Corman Services, routinely provide equipment, machinery, and services that facilitate the NTSB's investigation by removing debris and derailed equipment and by restoring transportation across damaged lines.

The NTSB - - along with many of NRC's members - - bolsters the safety and security of America's rail system by assisting federal and local law enforcement agencies in criminal accident investigations. When it is determined that an incident was caused by criminal activity, the NTSB will turn the investigation over to the appropriate law enforcement agency and will continue to provide any needed assistance. For example, in the 1990s, the NTSB assisted the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in two rail investigations.

On August 12, 1992, an Amtrak train derailed en route to Newport News, Virginia. The train, operating at about 79 miles per hour, passed a clear signal indicating that the switch three miles away was properly lined for the main track. By the time the train reached the switch, the switch had been realigned to reroute the train onto a siding track - - one that was not designed for main track speed. As a result, the train derailed.

Inspection of the siding switch by the Safety Board's investigative team, including representatives from the FRA, Amtrak, CSX Transportation, and the Newport News Police, uncovered evidence of sabotage. The Board immediately notified the FBI who assumed the lead in the investigation. NTSB staff remained on scene to assist the FBI and determine whether any safety recommendations were warranted. In the end, the FBI apprehended the individual who cut the locking-clasp on the switch and intentionally routed the train onto the siding track.

On October 9, 1995, a Sunset Limited Amtrak train, derailed near Phoenix, Arizona. One crewmember was killed and 80 passengers and crewmembers were injured. Several copies of a note were found at the accident site in which an individual claimed responsibility for the derailment. As a result, the FBI took the lead with Safety Board investigators providing investigation assistance.

Such cooperation between the NTSB, law enforcement agencies, and other organizations has historically instilled the public's confidence in the safety and security of the Nation's transportation system - - a confidence was understandably shaken by the tragic events of September 11th. Regaining and maintaining the level of confidence that existed just four short months ago requires the constant vigilance of everyone in the transportation community.

The NTSB - - as you may know assisted - - the FBI in its investigations of the September 11th plane crashes at the World Trade Center (WTC), the Pentagon, and in western Pennsylvania.

And therefore, soon after I became Chairman, I visited Ground Zero in New York. For those of you who have not toured the site - - let me tell you - - nothing prepared me for the magnitude of the devastation.

The pictures we have all seen on television did not help me comprehend the tremendous toll the attacks took on the heroic members of New York's police and fire departments or the representatives of the countless other government agencies working there. Certainly, the photos did not help me appreciate the renewed sense of compassion, teamwork, resilience, and creativity that the attacks engendered. I had to witness the site first hand - - only then did I begin to understand the magnitude of the recovery effort.

While at Ground Zero, I visited an empty apartment in an abandoned building that was set up as an observation post adjacent to the WTC site. Everything in the apartment was coated in inches of debris, ash, and dirt and seemed frozen in a moment in time - - it felt like Pompeii. There, NTSB investigators armed with video cameras, telescopes, and binoculars surveyed the wreckage - - through blown-in windows - - attempting to find the aircrafts' black boxes.

Next, I visited FreshKills landfill where rubble from the site is being sifted through to recover evidence and personal effects. Teams of police and firefighters - - working alongside members of other investigative organizations - - have discovered innovative ways to segregate wreckage, steel girders and other heavy materials. Creative uses for unconventional equipment are also being employed. I observed one gentleman operating an agricultural combine to help sift through mounds of debris.

I was truly inspired by the "can do" spirit shown by everyone involved in the recovery effort. I am confident that this same spirit exists both in this room here today and among all members of America's transportation system. Indeed, safety and security have become our collective responsibilities.

To that end, I was encouraged to learn that the FRA, the railroads, the shippers and the suppliers began taking steps to improve railroad security almost immediately following September 11th.

As you may know, soon after the attacks, the FRA conducted on-site security reviews of all major passenger terminals. They analyzed ways to enhance security with the major freight, passenger, commuter and short-line railroads, the rail labor organizations, and the Federal Transit Administration. As a result, the FRA formed critical action teams to examine security risks and develop solutions. These teams are examining:

  • physical assets such as bridges and tunnels;
  • information technology systems including dispatching systems;
  • chemical and hazardous materials and Department of Defense shipments;
  • train operations; and
  • passenger security and human factors.

In addition, the FRA drafted a bill to prevent rail and mass transportation terrorism. The bill strengthens existing federal laws that protect against terrorist attacks on railroads and establishes new federal laws regarding attacks on other mass transportation systems - - including subways, city buses, and ferry boats. The bill also establishes federal criminal sanctions for terrorist acts against railroads.

To their credit, the railroads did not wait for Congress to act - - additional actions to improve current security programs have been taken:

  • freight railroads went to a heightened state of alert; mobilized their police forces to work 12 hour shifts; increased track patrols; hired additional security personnel; and stationed people at strategic locations such as tunnels, bridges, and hazardous material yards;
  • security sweeps were conducted at all strategic rail locations;
  • some railroads temporarily halted transportation of hazardous materials through populated areas and strategic locations until security personnel were deployed;
  • railroad employees were instructed to be on alert for suspicious activities and were provided contact lists and telephone numbers to report security concerns; and
  • photo identification cards are being issued to railroad personnel.

While all of these measures address security concerns - - we must remember that safety is also a priority that cannot be compromised. Well aware of this fact, the railroads have increased safety through the introduction of new technologies such as:

  • heat-treated, curved plate freight car wheels:
  • a new generation of metallurgy for rails;
  • shelf couplers, head shields, and thermal protection for tank cars;
  • advanced track grinding techniques;
  • premium fastening systems that improve stability of track geometry;
  • wayside detectors to identify defective equipment;
  • track geometry cars that combine electronic and optical instruments for improved track inspection; and
  • computer-aided dispatching systems that give dispatchers an overview of track segments.

In fact, many of these rail safety improvements resulted from Safety Board recommendations. Thanks to you and the rail industry as a whole, nearly 82 percent of Safety Board recommendations have been implemented - - including new passenger safety standards, track standards, and power brake rules.

Yet, our joint pursuit to provide safe and secure transportation, we cannot become complacent- - other actions recommended by the Board have yet to be implemented. I want to briefly address two of those recommendations today: (1) positive train control (PTC) and (2) track safety.

PTC has been on the Safety Board's Most Wanted list of safety improvements since the list's inception in September 1990 and has repeatedly been highlighted in our railroad investigations since 1969. The Board's staff estimates that about 50 percent of railroad accidents we investigate each year could have been prevented by a PTC system.

A recent example illustrates this point. The NTSB just completed its investigation into a January 17, 1999 accident, in which three Consolidated Rail Corporation freight trains - - operating in fog on a double main track - - collided near Bryan, Ohio. An engineer and conductor were killed. Damages were estimated at $5.3 million.

The Board concluded that the accident was caused by human error - - a crewman's failure to comply with restrictive signal indications while operating in dense fog at the maximum speed authorized. Sadly, this accident could have been prevented with the installation of a backup safety system that would have alerted crewmembers to restrictive signal indicators.

Although the response from the FRA and railroad industry could have been faster, the Safety Board is nonetheless encouraged by steps taken in recent years - - including the implementation of seven PTC demonstration projects, which may eventually result in the development and implementation of a viable PTC system.

Track safety, particularly in the area of rail defect detection, is another topic of concern for the Safety Board. As you well know, increased car loading and rail traffic place great demands on rail performance.

Railroads move a billion gross tons on mainline rail annually. Rail cars weighing 286,000 pounds are frequently used to add capacity and efficiency. In fact, cars weighing up to 315,000 pounds - - more than 150 tons - - are becoming commonplace on our railroads.

As a result, the Safety Board has investigated a number of accidents in recent years caused - - in part - - by undetected rail defects. Two accidents in Wisconsin illustrate the problem:

  • In June 1992, more then 40,000 people were evacuated in Superior, Wisconsin when a hazardous material tank car derailed into a river as the result of an undetected rail fracture initiated by shelling.

  • Likewise, in March 1996, more than 3,000 people were evacuated in Weyauwega, Wisconsin when seven tank cars filled with liquid propane gas derailed and caught fire because a switch point rail broke due to an undetected bolt hole crack.

We are also currently investigating several accidents that involve defective rails including a March, 2000 Amtrak train derailment of 15 cars in Carbondale, Kansas and a March, 2001 Amtrak train derailment in Nodaway, Iowa that killed one passenger and injured more than 90 others.

Although rail defects can occur during the rail manufacturing process, they typically result from fatigue accumulation under repeated loading. Current inspection procedures and regulations are insufficient to identify certain defects under many field conditions.

For example, detection signals are often unable to locate defects in shelled rails. The Board first addressed this problem in 1994 after the Superior, Wisconsin accident. The Board recommended that the FRA:

  • research and develop inspection methods to identify internal defects in rail that has significant shelling and other surface conditions; and
  • perform the necessary research to develop standards to define limits of allowable rail surface conditions (such as shelling) that can hinder the identification of internal defects, and require remedial action for rail with surface conditions that exceed those limits.

Despite the fact that detection equipment manufacturers have substantially improved defect detection technology, these recommendations have not been implemented. As a result, the presence of severe surface conditions, which jeopardize the safety of America's passengers and freight, remain undetected. We have the ability and technology to correct this safety threat - - we must not wait any longer.

As history has shown us, the railroad community has always had significant safety and security challenges to meet. Like many times in the past, the fortitude of the railroad industry, its representatives and workers is now being tested. I am confident that together, we will pass this test - - and not only ensure the continued safety and security of our transportation system but will also secure the future of what Abraham Lincoln so appropriately titled, the last, best hope for mankind.

Our cooperative spirit will help remind the terrorists who attacked this country of a fact they apparently overlooked - - the true strength of America lies not in the steel of its buildings but in the hearts of its people.

Thank you.