WASHINGTON – Although the number of reported accidents and deaths at railway crossings has declined by almost half in the past decade, a new inspector general investigation finds that thousands of accidents and over 300 deaths still occur annually at rail grade crossings, exceeding established goals, Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said Monday.
In addition, the Federal Railroad Administration continues to underreport the total number of crossing deaths and accidents, the Department of Transportation IG report said, despite past efforts to correct this flaw. In 1999, the IG had similarly recommended that accident data from rail transit systems be included in overall accident numbers.
In a follow-up letter to Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta, Lieberman, who requested the report, urged strict adherence to the IG’s recommendations. Past IG recommendations have not been fully implemented.
“The good news is that safety programs have led to significant reductions in rail grade casualties,” said Lieberman. “The bad news is that too many accidents and deaths continue to occur. The Department of Transportation must direct focused attention to this problem, and take the Inspector General’s recommendations seriously, if it is to bring these numbers down.”
Since 1993, Transportation Department safety programs have reduced the number of deaths and accidents at rail grade crossings – where rails cross public highways – by nearly 50 percent, the IG report said. The number of grade crossing accidents fell 41 percent, from 4,892 at the end of 1993 to 2,909 at the end of 2003. During this same period, the number of fatalities decreased from 626 to 325 or by 48 percent.
Most accidents and deaths occurred in California, Texas, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Louisiana.
Despite the reductions, goals set by the Department in 1994, which called for fewer than 2,500 accidents and fewer than 300 deaths per year, remain unmet.
The IG recommended improving data reporting by railroads and states so that problem crossings can be identified, including accident data from rail transit systems, and focusing special attention on the six states with the highest number of accidents.
“While progress is clearly being made in improving the safety of rail grade crossings, the nation continues to pay a heavy price in terms of injuries and loss of life at rail grade accidents,” Lieberman said in the letter to Mineta.
Following is the letter.
Read the report at http://www.oig.dot.gov/item_details.php?item=1352
June 28, 2004
The Honorable Norman Y. Mineta
U.S. Department of Transportation
400 7th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20590
Dear Mr. Secretary:
A new report prepared by the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) concerning the Department’s Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Safety Program notes that while progress has been made in reducing rail grade crossing accidents and fatalities, the nation is still experiencing thousands of rail crossing accidents per year, resulting in over 300 deaths annually.
The report, which I requested, makes a number of recommendations to further improve the effectiveness of the Department’s rail crossing safety programs.
While each of the three relevant transportation administrations – Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) – have agreed in principle to the OIG recommendations, the OIG report indicates that their plans to respond to the recommendations fall short of what is truly needed to expeditiously address these problems. For example, FRA has not provided a specific date for the start of a proposed pilot program aimed at improving rail crossing safety in states with the largest number of accidents, nor has it identified when this pilot program would expand to cover all of these high-accident states. Consequently, I am writing to request that you work to ensure that the OIG recommendations are implemented with all reasonable speed and attention.
Although OIG found that FRA rail crossing data continues to underreport the total number of crossing accidents and fatalities, the OIG report concludes that the Department’s safety programs have resulted in a significant reduction in rail grade accidents and fatalities. (This underreporting is due to the fact that despite a 1999 OIG recommendation to integrate rail transit data into the FRA reporting system, a substantial number of rail transit accidents are still not being reported.) Since 1993, the Department’s programs have succeeded in cutting the number of rail grade accidents and fatalities approximately in half.
Notwithstanding this significant reduction, however, the OIG reports that these programs still failed to achieve the goals set by the Department in its 1994 Grade Crossing Safety Action Plan to reduce the annual number accidents to 2,500 and the number of fatalities to 300. The OIG also concluded that the past successes were the result of “safety initiatives that were the easiest to implement” and that additional progress will require the Department to “take a more focused approach that targets states and crossings with the highest number of accidents.”
Consequently, the OIG report makes a series of recommendations to better focus the Department’s rail crossing safety programs. These range from better data reporting by railroads and states so that problem crossings can be identified – including integration of rail transit system accident data into the grade crossing data base – to focusing special attention on those states and grade crossings with the highest number of accidents.
My concern that the OIG recommendations will not be quickly or fully acted upon is heightened by prior history. As the OIG report discusses, its new recommendations concerning the need to integrate rail transit accident data into the grade crossing database maintained by FRA mirrors a similar recommendation made by OIG in its 1999 evaluation of grade crossing safety programs – a recommendation, as noted above, that FRA and FTA did not implement. In fact, according to the new OIG report, a number of the recommendations made by the OIG in its 1999 report have not been not fully implemented. (The status of these is summarized in Exhibit A of the new report.)
While progress is clearly being made in improving the safety of rail grade crossings, the nation continues to pay a heavy price in terms of injuries and loss of life due to rail grade accidents. I appreciate your attention to this matter.
Joseph I. Lieberman
cc: Hon. Susan Collins, Chairman