I thought I’d chance watching the video recording of NTSB’s July 10-11, 2018 Investigative Hearing: Managing Safety on Passenger Railroads.
The July 10 morning session of Managing Safety on Passenger Railroads centered on the Feb. 4, 2018 collision of Amtrak 91 with a standing CSX freight train at Cayce, S.C. The collision occurred in CTC territory where the signal system had been disabled in order to accommodate PTC upgrades. The freight crew, switching between a yard and a siding, across a main track, failed to restore the main track switch to the proper position before releasing its control of the block to the dispatcher. The freight crew effectively lined the Amtrak into the siding and head-on into the train they were building. The Amtrak locomotive engineer and conductor were killed.
There is some good news to report coming out of the hearing: CSX has changed its operating practices so that during a signal system suspension, where block signals are disabled and trains operate with track warrant authority, hand-throw main track switches will be secured by the C&S department; the switches will be locked with signal department locks; train crews will not be able to unlock the switch; use of the switch will require the presence and participation of a signal department employee; train operations requiring the use of these switches will be curtailed during signal suspensions by minimizing industrial and/or switching operations; and “meets” in single-track territory will be scheduled for points outside the limits of the signal system suspension.
The thing about good news is that what makes it good, in this case and in many cases, is that it’s better late than never. Nothing prevented CSX from instituting these procedures prior to this fatal accident—nothing but habit, inertia, and the belief that “nobody will ever make that mistake here. The thing about mistakes is that anyone can, and does, make them anywhere, anytime.
Now this bit of good news seems to have passed entirely over the heads of the NTSB members, and maybe that’s as it should be, because the NTSB, after all, is concerned about safety—system-wide, industry-wide, and even sector-wide— on a railroad, on all railroads, in the entire transportation industry. This good news is limited to CSX.
Other railroads may have similar procedures in place—or not. The “or not” is bad news, and that’s where the Federal Railroad Administration is supposed to step in. FRA has solicited public comment on a so-called Safety Advisory regarding operation of hand-throw main track switches in territory where the signal system is disabled, seeking information on “industry best practices” so FRA can advise other railroads on such practices—but not make best practices the minimum operating requirements.
I know I sound cynical when I say that I don’t see the point, but I don’t. And I am cynical when it comes to FRA Safety Advisories.
FRA has in its past issued Safety Advisories, and it seems that such advisories have been, if not ignored, left unimplemented, which is not good news. Good news is nowhere near good enough when it comes to safe train operations. Effective regulation is the minimum safe standard. If FRA cannot provide that, then it is not fulfilling its obligation under the law.
David Schanoes is Principal of Ten90 Solutions LLC, a consulting firm he established upon retiring from MTA Metro-North Railroad in 2008. David began his railroad career in 1972 with the Chicago & North Western, as a brakeman in Chicago. He came to New York 1977, working for Conrail’s New Jersey Division. David joined Metro-North in 1985. He has spent his entire career in the operating division, working his way up from brakeman to conductor, block operator, dispatcher, supervisor of train operations, trainmaster, superintendent, and deputy chief of field operations. “Better railroading is 10% planning plus 90% execution,” he says. “It’s simple math. Yet, we also know, or should know, that technology is no substitute for supervision, and supervision that doesn’t utilize technology isn’t going to do the job. That’s not so simple.”