America’s freight railroad industry is among the safest in the world, thanks to its holistic approach to rail safety that focuses on four key areas: infrastructure and equipment; training and operational improvement; technology; and community outreach and preparedness.
Safety statistics compiled by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) demonstrate why this approach matters: Recent years have been the safest in the 200-year history of the industry.
Record Investment Fuels Safety Gains
A recent study by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University concluded that record levels of rail investment enabled by deregulation have been more effective at improving rail safety than safety regulation. Freight railroads have invested more than $685 billion in infrastructure and equipment since the industry was partially deregulated in 1980. Focusing investments on infrastructure and equipment, two of the leading causes of accidents, helped the industry achieve a string of record-setting years for safety. Since 2009 alone, the train accident rate has decreased by 10% and the derailment rate by 9%.
A Culture of Safety
The strong culture of safety that defines the railroad industry is a direct result of the emphasis railroads place on training and operational improvement. Daily safety briefings, peer-to-peer safety programs and training at state-of-the-art technical training centers, which feature simulators and virtual reality, are just some of the ways railroads empower their employees to put safety first.
Railroads and their partners also focus extensive resources on operational adjustments designed to drive safety gains. Software designed by the industry to identify the safest and most secure routes for moving hazmat and crude oil, known as the Rail Corridor Risk Management System, and enhanced safety features for hazmat rail cars are just a couple examples of freight rail’s emphasis on operational safety. These efforts help make rail the safest way to ship hazmat. In 2018, more than 99.999% of rail hazardous material shipments reached their destination without a release caused by a train accident.
A Smarter, Safer Rail Network
Today’s advanced rail tech allows rail employees to inspect track and equipment with greater frequency, efficiency and reliability. These advanced tools also empower employees to make better decisions, arming them with data on the health of rail infrastructure and equipment that goes well beyond what the human eye can see.
The technologies used by rail inspectors include drones to inspect inaccessible areas and bridges; ultrasound technology to identify flaws within track; and specialized sensors mounted along track which identify faulty or worn rail car components as trains pass. Because the nation’s rail network is highly integrated, with equipment often operating across the networks of multiple rail companies, today’s technology allows employees to gather and share data so potential problems with equipment can be identified and addressed quickly.
Technology also has the potential to make meaningful progress toward the industry’s goal of eliminating highway-rail grade crossing accidents. As autonomous vehicle technology continues to be developed, railroads have called on the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) to ensure that these cars recognize and react properly to warning devices at grade crossings. This effort supplements the industry’s longstanding commitment to community education and highway-rail grade separation initiatives.
With operations throughout 49 states, freight trains are an ever-present aspect of life in thousands of cities and towns across the nation, making community engagement and partnerships a critical component of railroad safety efforts. With more than 200,000 highway-rail grade crossings across the network, freight trains and the motoring public are often in contact. To minimize the impact of these interactions, railroads work with their operations teams, local road authorities, private property owners and the USDOT to identify crossings that can be upgraded or closed where feasible. Unfortunately, railroad operations can result in blocked crossings. Recently, railroads have partnered with technology companies on mobile solutions and digital signage to provide alternative routing suggestions and estimated wait times.
Railroads also support Operation Lifesaver Inc. (OLI), a nonprofit public safety education and awareness organization dedicated to improving safety around rail tracks and crossings. OLI reaches millions of people each year through safety presentations, training sessions, social media and special events held nationwide.
Each year, railroads train thousands of emergency first responders on how to safely respond to a rail incident at the world-class Security and Emergency Response Training Center (SERTC). Since its inception in 1985, SERTC has trained more than 70,000 students worldwide. AskRail, a mobile application developed by the industry, enables first responders to access detailed information about the cargo being moved on individual trains to ensure effective response. Furthermore, all major railroads have teams devoted to emergency response that are on call 24/7 to provide local officials with access to information and other resources — from clothing for displaced families to environmental consultants.
Our Goal is Zero Accidents
While efforts to date have produced impressive results, the rail safety challenge will never end until the industry reaches its goal of zero accidents. Until that time, railroads will continue to work with their employees, suppliers, customers and with officials at the FRA and across government to assess and implement new approaches to improve rail safety.