• C&S

House T&I hearing a litany of embarrassments

Written by David Schanoes, Contributing Editor

I watched the webcast of the June 2, 2015 U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure oversight hearing of the Amtrak accident in Philadelphia.

The committee called as witnesses the chairman of the NTSB (Hart); the acting (and nominated as permanent) administrator of the FRA (Feinberg); the president of Amtrak (Boardman); and the president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (Pierce) to testify about … well, it seems to testify about things unrelated to the specific cause of this specific accident, which makes sense in a weird way, since the committee itself, and the committee members themselves, seemed interested in most everything except the specific cause for this specific accident.

Really? Really. Look, I’m no ingénue. This is not my first time in the big city. I did not fall off the back of a truck loaded with pumpkins, and land on my head (although I have landed on my head in several other incidents, which may or may not be an explanation for me being … me).

I know that everybody, but everybody, has an agenda. I know that people object to “blame” because they don’t want to get tagged with responsibility.

So … let’s take some responsibility:

A: This accident was not caused by the condition or age of Amtrak’s infrastructure.

B: This accident was not caused by problems of obtaining sufficient radio spectrum.

C: This accident was not caused by the lack of another person in the operating cab. The history of American railroading is littered, literally, with the wreckage of trains where more than one person was in the cab.

D: This accident was not caused by fatigue, or by work rule changes. The engineer stated he felt rested and not fatigued.

E: This accident was not caused by the presence or absence of PTC.

F: This accident was not caused by insufficient funding of Amtrak.

G: Crashworthiness issues need to be placed in the proper perspective.

H: Here’s the proper perspective: France and Japan have operated high-speed service for decades and have not suffered a single overspeed accident, derailment or train collision due to human error. Prevention is the key to survivability, not crashworthiness.

I know cost, and I know benefit, and I know that no matter what you think you are talking about on a railroad, you are always talking about money. Always. Even when you don’t think you are—especially when you don’t think you are. Every operating decision is a financial decision. Every operating decision is a compromise between safety and efficiency. Anybody tells you differently in this industry, walk away.

Everybody jockeys for position. Everybody covers his or her own ass. Everybody says “if only” and “next time” and “never again.” Everybody means it. I am not one to question the sincerity of the chairman of the NTSB, the FRA administrator or the president of the BLET.

And I will certainly not question the sincerity of the president of Amtrak, who is living every operating officer’s nightmare—passenger fatalities due to crew failure that could have been prevented.

Nor am I one to question the sincerity of the members of the committee, whatever their positions are on free markets, government funding, private initiatives, what made the U.S. the great place it is today, or the menu in the cafeteria.

Sincerity is not the issue. The relevance of the various ideological positions to the investigation of an accident is an issue. The fact that advancing ideological concerns leads the committee members away from asking critical questions—that’s an issue.

The fact that the witnesses cannot point out the general operating conditions of railroads that make certain ideas nonsensical (seat belts, anyone?) is an issue.

Did I say “seat belts”? Sure did. Committee member Capuano, echoed by many others, wanted to know why the FRA seems reluctant to require seat belts to be installed in passenger trains.

I wish I could say it was entertaining to watch NTSB and FRA hem and haw, mumble and stumble over this issue, but it wasn’t.

As Deckard says to Captain Bryant in Blade Runner, “Embarrassing.”

• Embarrassing that neither the FRA administrator, nor the chairman of the NTSB, nor the president of Amtrak, nor the president of the BLET could or would point out to the committee members that passenger railroads do not guarantee a seat to any passenger. That unlike planes, all the passengers don’t board at the same origination point and disembark at the same destination. That requiring seat belts and assigned seating on commuter trains is so dramatic an alteration of the terms of interstate commerce that it rightly requires an act of Congress, not the decision of the regulator.

• Embarrassing that when a committee member asks, “What do they do in other countries?” that utilize extensive and modern rail networks, none of the witnesses points out that these other countries with their modern high-speed networks do not utilize seat belts in their passenger cars.

• Embarrassing again that the FRA administrator attempted to justify her agency’s refusal to address the industry regarding the issue of overspeeding after the Dec. 1, 2013 Metro-North derailment by claiming that Emergency Orders have to be quite narrow, and that FRA did not have the legal basis to address the industry as a whole in such a mandatory directive.

• More embarrassing that FRA repeats that same failure in its EO #31, requiring action only of Amtrak.

• Embarrassing because previous emergency orders have in fact addressed the entire passenger industry, the entire railroad industry. EO #20 applied to the entire passenger rail industry. EO #24 applied to the entire rail industry, passenger and freight. EO #26 applied to the entire industry. EO #28 applied to the entire industry.

• Embarrassing because the administrator stated that FRA is looking at extending its review of overspeed risks to other railroads without offering, and not being questioned about, what actions FRA might take and if any of the actions will prevent overspeed violations or even be binding.

• Embarrassing because FRA did something similar to this after the December 2013 overspeed derailment on Metro-North—issuing safety “advisories” to other railroads with “recommendations.”

• More embarrassing because not a single member of the full committee asked the administrator if her office had received any assessments from other railroads of the risks of overspeed derailments to their passenger operations. No one asked if FRA did anything in any single one of its regional offices to follow up on the advisory.

• More embarrassing because it comes down to this: If, according to Feinberg, NTSB recommends the installation of seat belts on passenger equipment, FRA will give it “serious consideration.” But issuing an EO to the industry requiring specific steps to reduce the likelihood of overspeed derailments? FRA apparently doesn’t think it has the legal basis to do that; doesn’t think that its EO could withstand a court challenge—as if any passenger service provider would have the stupidity to subject itself to the liability for an accident if it decided to challenge the EO.

• Embarrassing that three weeks after the accident the NTSB still can’t say whether or not the locomotive engineer was improperly using a cell phone.

• More embarrassing because not a single member of the committee asked the following simple questions of NTSB or FRA or Amtrak:

Q1: Do you have the employee’s cell phone in your possession?

Q2: Initial reports were that the locomotive engineer utilized his cell phone to call 911 after the accident. Can you verify that the employee did in fact use his cell phone to make such a call?

Q3: If yes, then what is the time that the 911 system has for this call? What is the time that the employee’s cell phone records show for this call? What is the time that the cell phone provider’s records show for this call?

Q4: Is there indication in the log of phone or text or email messages having been altered or erased prior to you obtaining possession of the phone?

Q5: Aren’t those three times for the same action (making the 911 call) sufficient basis for you to determine if the cell phone had been in use anytime after the train left 30th Street Station and prior to the derailment?

• Embarrassing because the president of the BLET correctly pointed out that PTC cannot prevent all accidents, and will not prevent rear-end collisions at 20 mph or less, like the collision on the BNSF near Red Oak, Iowa, where a coal train ran into the rear end of a stopped m/w train, and therefore according to Pierce, PTC cannot replace a second person in the cab. Therefore we must have two people in the operating cab, on freight trains, on passenger trains—everywhere.

• Embarrassing because Pierce neglected to point out that two people were killed in that collision, and that both were in the operating cab of the locomotive of the coal train that ran into the rear end of the stopped m/w train. Maybe we need a third person?

• More embarrassing because the chairman of the NTSB, the agency that investigated the BNSF accident, did not point out that there were two people in that cab.

• Even more embarrassing because not a single member of the committee questioned Pierce about his choice of examples.

• Embarrassing that there was all this talk about fatigue and changing work schedules and demand overload and excessive hours, and not a single member of the committee asked, was this employee fatigued? Had this employee’s schedule recently changed, by choice or by company order? Was this employee’s regular assignment altered by any recent work rule changes?

And so this is where we are today: with regulatory, investigatory and advocacy processes that are in fact nothing but embarrassments.

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