Federal Rail Agency Hopes Human Factors Rule Does the Trick

A final rule issued today by the Federal Railroad Administration is intended to address human factors -- specifically, compliance with railroads' operating rules. Noncompliance accounts for about half of the train accidents related to human factors, considered to be the number one cause of train accidents. Years of work by an advisory committee and comments on a proposed rule brought FRA to this moment; rail unions expressed concern that the rule will expose employees who report unsafe conditions to heavy penalties. FRA replied that its rules already allow employees to be penalized for gross negligence or willful misconduct; today's rule asks railroads to ensure their operating rules do not discourage voluntary reporting of problems. The rule will take effect April 14.

Human factors may seem to be a gray area, but to FRA it means specific errors: accidents caused by mishandling of equipment, switches, and derails; failure to control a shoving movement and failure to station an employee at, on, or ahead of a shoving movement; railcars left where they shouldn't have been; failure to apply or remove a derail; and others. A catastrophic derailment in Graniteville, S.C., on Jan. 6, 2005, brought the issue into sharp focus; a Norfolk Southern Railway Co. freight train was diverted from a main track onto an industry track by an improperly lined switch and struck a parked train, derailing both locomotives and 16 cars. The train engineer and eight other people died because they inhaled chlorine gas released by a tank car breached in the derailment. Property damage exceeded $6.9 million, and Norfolk Southern in 2006 recorded expenses of $41 million related to the incident that did not include insured losses and some other losses, today's rule states. NTSB determined the probable cause was a failure by the crew of the parked train to return a main track switch to the normal position after they completed work at an industry. That failure violated railroad operating rules but did not violate any federal requirement then in place. A similar, less serious accident happened two days later in Bieber, Calif., and FRA issued Safety Advisory 2005-01, "Position of Switches in Non-Signaled Territory," two days after that, on Jan. 10, 2005. It urged all railroads to immediately adopt and comply with five recommendations that were intended to strengthen, clarify, and re-emphasize their operating rules to ensure all main track switches are returned to their normal position after use. Today, FRA said Safety Advisory 2005-1 "did not have the long-term effect that FRA hoped it would" because, while it was meant to allow the industry to clamp down on the frequency and severity of one type of human factor accident, only a six-month respite ensued, followed by a sharp increase in serious accidents.

"FRA is not specifically required by statute to issue a regulation on the subjects covered by this final rule," today's rule states. "However, FRA believes that establishing greater accountability for implementation of sound operating rules is necessary for safety. FRA initiated and finalized this rulemaking because it has recognized that human factor train accidents comprise the largest single category of train accident causes and because existing regulations have proven inadequate to achieve a significant further reduction in their numbers or severity. Moreover, the current situation in the railroad industry, which is characterized by strong market demand, extensive hiring of new employees, and rapid attrition of older employees now becoming eligible for retirement, demands a more substantial framework of regulations to help ensure that operational necessity will not overwhelm systems of safeguards relied upon to maintain good discipline. The theme of this final rule is accountability. It embodies both a broad strategy intended to promote better administration of railroad programs and a highly targeted strategy designed to improve compliance with railroad operating rules addressing three critical areas. . . . Railroad management will be held accountable for putting in place appropriate rules, instructions, and programs of operational tests. Railroad supervisors will be held accountable for doing their part to administer operational tests and establish appropriate expectations with respect to rules compliance. Railroad employees will be held accountable for complying with specified operating rules, and will have a right of challenge should they be instructed to take actions that, in good faith, they believe would violate those rules. It is intended that this framework of accountability promote good discipline, prevent train accidents, and reduce serious injuries to railroad employees."

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