‘The Most Robust Model for Safety Culture Assessment’

Written by Chuck Baker, President, ASLRRA

ASLRRA PERSPECTIVE, RAILWAY AGE AUGUST 2023 ISSUE: JULY 2023 marked the 10-year anniversary of the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster in Quebec, Canada, the most tragic railroad accident in the modern freight railroad era. The accident resulted in 47 deaths, six million liters of crude oil leaking from 63 tank cars, and the evacuation of about 2,000 people from their homes.

There is nothing I or anyone can say to ease the pain or undo the damage resulting from this accident. But for the short line industry, it did result in one outcome that has made short line railroading much safer and that we believe has dramatically reduced the possibility of such a horrific accident in the future.

Even before the Lac-Mégantic accident, ASLRRA members aspired to formulate a more effective way to address and improve the safety culture of individual short lines. That effort was grounded in the belief that a company’s safety culture, or lack thereof, was a contributing cause of some railroad accidents. But “safety culture” is a multi-dimensional and potentially amorphous concept, and there was only limited agreement among short line leaders regarding how or even if meaningful improvement could be accomplished. And to be candid, it was thought that those short lines needing the most improvement would perhaps be resistant to acknowledging their shortcomings, and that companies in general would not consent to outside critiques of their internal practices. Lac-Mégantic turned what was an aspiration into an imperative.

The result was the 2015 formation of the Short Line Safety Institute (SLSI), a collaboration of ASLRRA, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center (Volpe). SLSI, today a standalone not-for-profit organization, is funded through FRA’s Office of Research, Technology and Development, with bipartisan and bicameral support from Congress, and engages in continuous improvement efforts through an ongoing program evaluation to ensure program fidelity and to adjust its approach as necessary. SLSI defines safety culture as the shared values, actions, and behaviors that demonstrate a commitment to safety over competing goals and demands. This is easier said than done, of course.

SLSI conducts safety culture assessments, hazardous material training, leadership development training and safety research.  At the center of the SLSI mission are its safety culture assessments of individual short lines.  These five-to-eight-day on-site assessments are voluntary, non-punitive, confidential assessments of short line railroads. The assessments utilize teams of Assessors in a site-customized, in-depth process involving survey, observation and interviews at every level of the railroad’s personnel. They are admittedly and proudly quite thorough and rigorous. 

SLSI uses the Ten Core Elements of a Strong Safety Culture, as identified by the U.S. DOT Safety Council as a framework to operationalize its definition of safety culture. In the end, the short line is presented with positive as well as negative findings about its safety culture and opportunities for improvement through recommended organizational changes or actions. The FRA has called SLSI “the most robust model for assessing safety culture in the U.S. railroad industry.”

The assessments are confidential because they are designed to be highly critical where criticism is merited. The willingness by individual short lines to subject themselves to, and act upon, constructive criticism of their safety culture is the core foundation of this program. It has been a crucial and gratifying response to our pre-Lac-Mégantic concern that this would be a significant stumbling block to implementing a meaningful safety initiative.

To date, 133 safety culture assessments have been conducted and 10 more have been scheduled between now and the end of the year. SLSI is already booking reservations for 2024, and there continues to be exceptionally strong demand for the program.

Measuring the results of safety culture improvements can be a difficult task for any organization, as not all incidents are the result of a safety culture, particularly for short lines, which can be subject to the law of small numbers. However, the government does require annual reportable injuries for all railroads, and by that measure we can claim some real success. There are approximately 600 short line railroads. In 2000, 190 had zero reportable injuries. In 2015, the year SLSI was created, 286 had zero. In 2022, 350—well over 50%—had zero reportable injuries. 

In 2015, the short line average incident rate was 2.63 reportable incidents per 200,000 person-hours worked. In 2022, the average incident rate has dropped to a record low 2.01 reportable incidents per 200,000 person-hours worked. More than 50% is not the same as 100%, and 2.01 is not zero, but we believe with the continued work of SLSI and the commitment of the short line industry to do even better, we can steadily approach those goals.

This is not a ten-year anniversary to be celebrated. But it should stand as a stark reminder that we have a solemn obligation to do everything we can to mitigate against a similar disaster. ASLRRA is committed to this effort. We applaud our members that are committed to safety every minute of every hour of every day, and we encourage every short line to take advantage of SLSI’s Safety Culture Assessment program, its hazardous material and leadership development training, and the industry’s safety research.  

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