The nation’s foremost railroad watchdog is potentially facing a serious workforce shortage, raising questions about its ability to ensure safety after a string of high-profile accidents.
With 324 safety inspectors across the country, government investigators say, the Federal Railroad Administration can oversee only 1 percent of all railroad operations.
“FRA is a small agency with limited resources available to execute the large scope of its oversight responsibility, especially compared to the size of the industry it regulates,” says a report by the Government Accountability Office.
Congress’ investigative branch released the report last week after a New York City commuter train went off the rails at 82 mph on Dec. 1, killing four and injuring dozens.
The crash focused attention on the safety demands facing the rail agency — a tough situation that is likely to get tougher as 150 of the agency’s field safety staff, about 30 percent, are eligible to retire in the next five years.
The federal government “sets the standard” for what is expected in railway safety, said Joshua Schank, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan think tank focused on transportation issues.
“You want to make sure that you have adequate inspectors on the job,” he said. “Because the railroads know what the standard is that the federal government expects, they follow it.”
The GAO estimates that it takes four months to four years to train a safety inspector, but said the Federal Railroad Administration has not been planning for a workforce shortfall or new class of recruits. As of April, 23 inspector positions were vacant.
“The agency has no formal plans to strategically address its human capital challenges,” investigators said. “Without a plan, FRA risks not having a skilled and trained workforce, deployed in the right technical domains, to meet present and future challenges to the FRA’s rail-safety oversight framework.”
The government also has to compete with the private railroad industry to hire qualified inspectors, the GAO said.
The FRA’s parent organization, the Transportation Department, said it remains committed to improving rail safety and would consider the GAO’s recommendations on improving hiring practices.
At the same time much of the FRA’s staff is eligible to retire, rail traffic will increase 9 percent by 2020, the agency estimates. The Obama administration has encouraged the use of the nation’s railways, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act gave $10 billion for rail improvement projects.
“If this nation is going to have a safe and efficient rail system, Congress must do more to invest in infrastructure and our workforce,” said Democratic West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, Chairman of the Transportation Committee. “The most recent Metro-North derailment is a tragic reminder of the devastating impact a derailment or collision can have. While we hear a lot of lip service paid to investing in infrastructure, it’s time to get serious and make the safety investments that are necessary to keep the public safe and commerce thriving.”
The good news is that railway companies often go “beyond the required federal standards,” the GAO said.
“The safety record of the railroad industry in the United States has shown marked improvement in the last 20 years, and according to [FRA] data, 2012 was the safest year on record,” investigators said. “Nonetheless, recent train accidents continue to underscore the need for vigilance.”
Mr. Schank agreed that railway safety has been improving.
“As a general rule, safety in rail is pretty good. They’ve been doing a great job,” he said. “A lot of credit goes to the government, but a lot of credit goes to the railroads as well.”
The “threat of bad press and unwanted attention” often can motivate railroads to make sure safety is paramount, Mr. Schank said.
“When there is an accident, there is such intense scrutiny from Congress and from the media on any major accident that it causes tremendous economic damage” to the company, he said.
FRA data show about 100 deaths in the U.S. from train accidents over the past decade. It’s much more common for pedestrians and drivers to be killed by trains while at rail crossings — more than 2,000 deaths in the past decade.
But the worst crashes this year — both in July — happened outside the U.S. In Spain, a passenger train derailed after a high-speed turn, killing 79; in Quebec, a freight train exploded, killing 47.
In August, the GAO reported, the U.S. is having difficulty implementing “positive train control,” a system of upgrades designed to help prevent accidents caused by human behavior, such as the Brooklyn train operator’s disorientation that investigators believe contributed to the accident.
But the GAO found that three major freight railroads won’t be ready to implement the system by the 2015 deadline, and most commuter railroads must wait until the freight lines are finished.
The system was developed in response to a 2008 crash that killed 25.