Three ways to enhance rail safety

Jon McDonald, PE | 18 Jun 2015 | Comments

As rail accidents continue to make the news, commentators speculate about what caused a particular event and how it could have been avoided. But by focusing on a singular event (or a singular cause) we may be headed in the wrong direction.

While the cause of a specific accident is important to both the industry and those affected, when it comes to future accident prevention, we must take a broader look. To understand, let me take you back to 1931, when a man by the name of HW Heinrich published a book titled “Industrial Accident Prevention.” His studies showed that for every accident that caused a major injury, there were 29 that caused minor injuries, and 300 near misses (the classic safety pyramid). Several others have conducted similar studies with similar results, including a 2003 ConocoPhillips Marine study that showed for every fatality there were at least 300,000 at-risk behaviors.

With this model, we can see that in order to prevent major accidents, we must focus on preventing near misses and changing at-risk behaviors. Every incident matters—including the ones that don’t make the news. In essence, we need to build a culture focused on safety, where safe behaviors as well as safe designs are the norm. The rail industry on the whole, like the airline industry, is safety oriented and generally achieves accident rates hundreds of times lower than automobiles. But with present-day pressures on transit agencies to operate under tighter budgets and increased performance expectations (adopting new, complex technologies, replacing crumbling assets, and developing a new work force as the baby boomer generation retires), maintaining this culture of safety can be challenging.

With this in mind, I believe a focus on the following three points would help the industry move forward and prevent not only the major catastrophes, but address many of the pieces that are putting the entire system at risk:

  1. The importance of Independent Safety Assessors. The first question to ask is “How do we know it’s safe?” Safety is more than just following code. Safety in rail is about designing a safe system, then operating and maintaining it to be safe for both staff and the public. In all aspects of design, operation, and maintenance, we must depend on people with multiple priorities to do the work. From contractors who are focused on the bottom line, to designers who are vested in proving their designs are correct, to operators and maintenance staff who may not be familiar with new designs and equipment—who can you depend on to make sure it’s safe? By hiring an expert Independent Safety Assessor (ISA) whose only goal is to ensure safety, agencies can ensure that the system will be rigorously tested and validated at each stage of development.
  2. The need for a scientific approach in managing assets. To ensure safety, agencies must know exactly what they have, what state it’s in, and what needs to be done next. Let’s not oversimplify—there are thousands of miles of track and rail cars crisscrossing the country, all coordinated by complex signals and systems. In addition, much of America’s existing infrastructure is aging and in desperate need of replacement or repair. It can be a very difficult job to know what to pay attention to at what time to keep everything running smoothly, consistently, and safely. In public agencies, high-profile and public-facing projects tend to get the most attention—similar to profit-making projects in private companies. These situations create the opportunity for popular or profitable projects to take precedence over low-profile (and less glamorous) operational or safety-related projects. A proper asset management approach using scientific methods to evaluate conflicting priorities and limited resources can help organizations solve these problems to ensure the safest, most cost-effective system.
  3. The importance of training. People are any organization’s biggest asset. There is a huge shift taking place in the rail workforce today. One generation is leaving the workforce in large numbers, as the next is struggling to fill their shoes. Decades of hands-on experience and practical knowledge is being lost, just as human error is becoming an increasing factor in several recent incidents. How can we be sure that all those handling safety equipment are qualified and that they follow the correct procedures? Surprisingly, there are few organizations offering training and fewer still offering certification for rail engineers and maintainers. Our training programs must keep pace with demand, and employers must ensure those entrusted with the safety of others meet strict criteria.

Atkins is currently working with several agencies in the US and abroad to help improve safety, asset management, and training.