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The Trump administration will soon be appointing the key officials who will oversee the nation’s freight rail system and have the opportunity to expand on the positive safety trends that have made the past several years the industry’s safest on record. Many of these trends are due to implementation of safety protocols and new technologies by the industry itself, not the traditional prescriptive policies of federal agencies.
To continue these improvements, the safety community and rail industry hope for a new regulatory approach that focuses on performance-based measures and outcome-oriented solutions rather than rigid command-and-control, top-down dictates. Perhaps more importantly, a new head of the Federal Railroad Administration will have a unique opportunity to restore healthy collaboration with the industry to achieve the common goal of even safer rails.
Substantial private sector investments — some $26 billion annually in recent years — have paid off significantly for the freight sector and, more importantly, for the public. In 2016, U.S. railroads recorded all-time lows in track-caused accidents and derailments, confirming the trend seen in recent years in which freight rail has been getting safer and safer.
Here are the facts: Accident rates have plummeted 44 percent since 2000, while equipment-caused accidents are down 34 percent. Over the same time, track-caused accidents dropped 52 percent, and derailments fell 44 percent. All of this has been achieved during a 17-year-long period of increased volume.
Unlike some other transportation industries — and without prodding by the federal government — freight railroads have been pumping billions of dollars annually into developing and implementing new safety technologies and approaches. The correlation is clear: This sustained investment is paying off in safer operations. What the railroads do not need are politically driven regulations and rules that are not supported by data and threaten to stifle this private investment.
Further progress will be made with a more modern and nimble oversight structure. A data-driven, results-oriented safety system based on partnership, not punishment, should be the goal for the new transportation leadership.
Safety professionals across all industries have found that performance-based standards are more effective than the old punitive system of oversight, regulation and punishment. A one-size-fits-all outlook coupled with severe penalties does not produce the safety records that the public now demands. Nor does it incentivize innovation and adoption of new technologies, because it can lock technology in place and discourage forward-thinking changes.
A prime example, and one which I have studied closely over the years in my capacity at the National Transportation Safety Board, as well as a safety consultant, is the evolution of aviation safety policy that has yielded world-leading results. The United States has the safest commercial aviation system in the world, and it has delivered this enviable status through a system of regulation, oversight and operator participation that is driven by data and performance-based decision-making.
Through sustained commitment, the Federal Aviation Administration and the industry have largely found a balance that gives airlines the flexibility to find solutions that work for each individual component while still ensuring proper oversight and consumer protection. Rules and regulations are enacted with substantive industry input. Air carriers are seldom told how to specifically implement the rule or regulation. Instead, it is understood that each carrier is a unique operating entity in a unique environment and solutions of one size do not fit all.
The rail industry is pushing hard to emulate this approach, and the new administration and congressional lawmakers should listen — just as Congressman Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) is, for instance.
The rail industry may have a long history, but it remains a growing and vital component of our economy because of its commitment to investing in innovation. A new federal regulatory system that recognizes and supports this innovation will ensure that freight rail continues to move the nation’s goods and services using the most advanced safety technology.
Peter Goelz served as managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1995-2000.
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