I present this white paper (downloadable below) from the viewpoint of an observer and generalist, albeit one with more than 46 years of involvement in rail safety and policy issues, 36 years of which were “in the trenches” at the Federal Railroad Administration. The views and issues discussed should be tested against the seasoned judgments of qualified engineers, technologists, managers, line employees and data analysts. They are not native to any individual area of specialization. Only a dialogue involving transparency and rigor will yield clarifications and real progress.
Editor’s Note: Cothen will testify at the “Examining Freight Rail Safety” hearing, to be held June 14 by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials.
Effective management of in-train forces has always been important for the safety of railroad operations. Although improvements in braking technology have greatly reduced the incidence of run-away trains, incidents of loss of effective braking still occur, and accidents involving buff and draft forces within trains continue to occur. The development of advanced tools to assist in ascertaining and managing those forces presents an opportunity to reduce derailments. Better control of risks to persons and property can also yield greater confidence in the ability of the railroads to handle a variety of hazardous materials. However, for progress to be realized, railroads must place a priority on proper marshalling and management of their trains.
Unfortunately, short-term financial incentives have driven major railroads away from operating strategies that focus on customer needs, and towards strategies that appear to place operating efficiency alone at the top of priority rankings. Among other impacts, this has resulted in decisions to operate fewer and longer trains and to skip train marshalling practices that limit risk. Initial implementation was not accompanied by appropriate measures to manage in-train forces, even by traditional standards. As this paper was revised in the spring of 2022, some of the railroads were moving toward implementation of more effective measures, but adherence is not assured. At the same time, supported by government research, the railroads claim to be moving toward fully automated operations.
The changes in train operations already implemented may be approaching the point at which train crews will be deskilled and thus wholly reliant on technology that is not yet ready to seize control of train movements. This is a prescription for learning in the field, rather than on the test track, with train crews and communities paying the price.
Review of discrete rail accident data sets bearing most directly on this category of risk indicates that recent safety performance is unacceptable, given the technology available and the strides visible in key categories, principally track safety. Excess risk continues to generate concrete examples of events that have had the potential for catastrophic consequences.
The Federal Railroad Administration has begun documenting exemplary events through its accident investigation program, demonstrating a growth in technical understanding. The National Transportation Safety Board sees the problem, but appears to be a little confused about how to deal with it. From the viewpoint of the outside observer, at least, action in response to documented hazards has not yet been forthcoming.
This paper endeavors to identify some of the actions likely required to nudge or compel the railroads toward a path that is better disciplined and more respectful of the risks associated with operating practices that rely on untested technology or suites of technology that have not been evaluated for proper integration. The following actions are required:
- Moving on an expedited basis, FRA should require railroads to adhere to their own train marshalling and train operation rules.
- The Congress should mandate regulatory action to address management of in-train forces and establish default conditions that would take effect if regulatory action is stalled or obstructed.
- FRA should convene the RSAC to address this need and prepare a proposed rule.
- FRA should update the accident/incident reporting system to gather better focused and refined train accident data.
- Both FRA and the NTSB should redouble their efforts to determine the underlying causes of accidents associated with management of in-train forces.
This paper also urges early adoption of electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, technology crucial to proper control of long trains and heavy trains safely and efficiently. Taking action on these issues now will both improve safety in the short term and clarify issues with respect to any automated operations proposed to be undertaken in the future. By contrast, exclusive reliance on the new Risk Reduction Program will not materially advance resolution of these issues, because under that program railroads can elect to mitigate hazards at a level they determine and shield from public view important data which should be available to ensure accountability.
As indicated by the “Safety Context” section of this paper, I really don’t wish to be unduly harsh. However, there are two reasons why this is necessary.
First, what is happening in the industry today is merely part of a larger trend toward financialization of economies internationally, notably including the U.S. economy. Steven Pearlstein, who is a centrist commentator on American business and economics, explains all about this in Moral Capitalism: Why Fairness Won’t Make Us Poor.* His critique is by no means the most harsh, and you don’t need to agree with him on prescriptions for righting the boat to agree with him that it is listing. I’m not the only person familiar with the railroad industry to comment on the impact of private capital (including hedge funds). I didn’t invent the term “the almighty operating ratio,” but it seems that is what we have come to, at least for now.
Second, any deficit in safety needs explanation. In a pure Adam Smith world, safety takes care of itself. Management does the best that can be done with existing tools, because that’s how we keep employees and communities safe, deliver reliable service, build the business and ensure that the enterprise is well-regarded. In the past, railroads could often claim scarcity of resources.
Many of my FRA colleagues, and others in the public sphere, devoted much of their lives to helping the railroads break free of economic regulation and begin behaving like free-market companies. They were set free, and they took on the challenge. By some point in the decade of the 2000s, they began making really good money, and they plowed much of it back into the railroad. However, in the past several years, driven by Wall Street expectations, several Class I’s have begun to do strange things. We won’t know for some time what that means for “state of good repair,” but we do have indications that operations are affected—and safety is affected.
My safety theorist friends would say, “Yes, but they just need to build a positive safety culture.” Ah, but that starts with values. If safety is among your very highest values, great. If short-term profit trumps all else, you have no possibility of creating a thorough-going positive safety culture. It’s that simple.
So, while some are saying more diplomatic things directed toward the same problem, I’ll just continue to say that the Emperor has no clothes. Being retired from government does permit one to be less bureaucratic in one’s mode of expression.
DOWNLOAD THE WHITE PAPER:
Retired rail transportation consultant Grady C. Cothen Jr. retired in 2010 from the Federal Railroad Administration after 36 years in various positions: Deputy Associate Administrator for Safety Standards and Program Development (1994-2010); Associate Administrator for Safety (1991-1994); and Special Assistant to the Chief Counsel for rail safety, labor protection and asset sale projects (1975-1991). Prior to that, he served as a trial attorney in the Enforcement Division of the FRA Office of Chief Counsel. Cothen was also Acting Associate Administrator for Policy from 1986-1988, where he provided executive direction for economic, financial and traffic analysis and freight policy studies, including recommendations for Departmental positions in rail proceedings before the Interstate Commerce Commission. Cothen holds a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center and a B.A. in Government and History from Oklahoma Baptist University. The opinions expressed here and in the attached paper are his own.
Editor’s Note: For further insight, read also Moral Capital: Reconciling Private Interest with the Public Good, by Stephen Young. – William C. Vantuono