Wednesday, February 06, 2013

FRA's Szabo: Safety gains keep on coming

Written by  Mischa Wanek-Libman, engineering editor
Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo addressed the Railway Age/Parsons Transportation Group International Conference on Communications-Based Train Control on Feb. 5. He spoke about rail's growing role in moving people and freight, as well as Positive Train Control's role in improved railroad safety.

Szabo called 2012 a monumental year for rail, pointing out Amtrak's all-time high ridership, continued rise in intermodal freight traffic and the record-level of federal investments in passenger and freight rail, which, when combined with private investments, said Szabo, lays the foundation for a safer, more reliable and more efficient rail network.

Szabo said falling short in safety would have transformed 2012 from a success to a disappointment, but the year was safest in industry history.

"Our goal – always – is to lead the way to continuous improvements in railroad safety," said Szabo. "As we work with railroads to implement Positive Train Control we're also taking a hard look at the human factors behind accidents and incidents. And we're implementing numerous rail safety initiatives to protect rail workers, travelers and the public at large."

Szabo pointed to the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which mandates approximatley 40 rail safety rulemakings, reports and other projects by FRA. According to Szabo, FRA has completed 13 of the 22 RSIA-mandated rules and has issued notices for proposed rulemakings on five more.

"This includes leading an evolution in railroad safety culture by aggressively advancing Risk Reduction programs for commuter, intercity, and emerging high-speed operations, and System Safety programs applying to freights.

"These programs will present a tremendous opportunity for the industry to take proactive measures to prevent accidents; to undertake an honest yet non-punitive assessment of human factors; and to leave no stone unturned.

"Our Risk Reduction Program Division also is continuing to work with several railroads on Confidential Close Call Reporting System pilot projects.

"We see Confidential Close Call reporting as a tremendous opportunity to learn more about safety issues before accidents occur and work with railroads to improve safety cultures," said Szabo.

Szabo also pointed out the work being done to incorporate Fatigue Management Plans into railroad safety programs and mentioned the peer-to-peer electronic device distraction elimination initiative that was recently launched.

"We see PTC as the technology backbone ensuring our goal of continuous safety improvements. PTC will cut down on the potential of human error – acting as a safeguard against preventable accidents and incidents.

"PTC also is an enhancement to crash-energy management systems. In that respect, we see it as a complement to our FRA team's longstanding effort to achieve a performance-based safety approach that will allow for lighter, faster, more energy-efficient trainsets to be designed for the U.S. market.

"Ultimately, PTC will not only prevent accidents and incidents – it is a safety advancement that better positions the rail industry to play a much larger role in our transportation network than it does today," said Szabo.

Szabo said FRA continues to fully support PTC implementation because the technology is an advancement that will allow the industry to "do better."

"As for our role, it's two-fold. One is to provide Congress with accurate information – and we will continue to do so. The other role is to work directly with railroads; with manufacturers and suppliers; and with industry stakeholders to see PTC deployed in a safe, efficient, and cost-effective manner," said Szabo. "We have invested more than $6 million in PTC test projects. We also have invested $50 million to address shared PTC technology issues through the Rail Safety Technology Program. The effort to meet Congress' mandate for PTC is part of a greater energy at work all over the country – part of an unprecedented commitment to building true 21st century rail."

Last, Szabo touched on the High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail program saying the FRA has partnered with 32 states and invested in 152 projects.

"Moving forward, 43 projects in 17 states and the District of Columbia worth $3.1 billion in funding are either under construction or will soon be underway – and the next two construction seasons promise to the busiest yet.

"We've been able to invest more than a billion dollars in projects that strengthen freight rail infrastructure and intermodal terminals. And all told, the nearly $19 billion worth of federal investments in rail since 2009 is now building, improving or creating 6,000 corridor miles and 40 stations – while pushing forward 75 planning studies and 30 state rail plans or service development plans.

"So, whether it comes to rail safety, or rail development, we will continue to build on the progress we've already made – and expect the industry will as well. As America's rail network continues to grow, so must our efforts to continually strengthen railroad safety.

Together, we can build a safe rail network that can effectively transport 100 million more Americans and 4 billion more tons of freight.

"And together, we can provide faster, more convenient and more reliable service for passengers, carriers and shippers," Szabo said in closing.