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Inspector general's audit: FRA should clarify railroads' accident reporting requirements, step up enforcement of rule violations

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) needs to take a proactive approach to reducing grade crossing accidents by clarifying its reporting requirements, obtaining and analyzing independent accident data, and increasing enforcement of existing regulations. That’s one of the findings in an audit released yesterday by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General (OIG).

The OIG audited the FRA’s crossing safety oversight at the request of several congressmen, who’re concerned about a July 2004 New York Times series that criticized U.S. railroads’ crossing accident reporting practices and safety improvement efforts. Railroads are required to notify the National Response Center (NRC) within 24 hours of a fatal crossing accident to enable the National Transportation Safety Board and FRA to decide whether to conduct an investigation.

The audit found that, although the FRA has taken steps to improve crossing safety since mid-2004, crossing collisions that year rose 3 percent from 2,963 to 3,045 and the number of fatalities increased 11 percent from 332 to 368 compared with 2003.

“These increases, and the upward trend in train and highway traffic, indicate that more needs to be done to improve grade crossing safety,” OIG officials said in the audit.

The OIG also determined that railroads failed to immediately report 21 percent of reportable crossing collisions to the NRC, and the FRA investigated “very few” crossing collisions and made “limited use” of its regulatory enforcement authority in assessing civil penalties to encourage compliance.

The OIG recommends that the FRA:
• clarify accident reporting rules to the NRC by requiring railroads to report any crossing collision resulting in a fatality within 24 hours;
• maintain a new monthly practice of reconciling crossing accident reports submitted to its database with those reported to the NRC;
• “rigorously” enforce violations, and assess and collect civil penalties when railroads fail to report accidents to the NRC; and
• collect and analyze independent information on crossing collisions (including event recorder data and accident reports) from railroads, and local or state law enforcement agencies, under a pilot program.

FRA officials agree with the audit’s findings and plan to implement the recommendations.

“The comprehensive and effective grade crossing safety oversight program of the FRA will be further strengthened as a result of recommendations made by the Inspector General,” said FRA Administrator Joseph Boardman in a prepared statement. “They will help the FRA determine the accuracy of crossing accident information reported by the railroads and may contribute to our understanding of the causes of crossing collisions.”

The OIG plans to issue a separate audit assessing the adequacy of the FRA’s oversight of crossing accident reporting and control of vegetation at crossings.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 12/2/2005