Rail Safety Is Everyone’s Business

In today’s complex, interconnected landscape of modern transportation, rail remains a key pillar for the movement of goods in support of households and businesses. It is essential in transporting raw materials and goods that the public does not often think twice about but are integral to the innerworkings of our society. What does tend to catch attention are derailment statistics without context, concerns over safety, and more.

Those who serve at the heart of the industry know that safety is the top priority, woven into the very fabric of the profession. To get a clearer picture on how the industry approaches this critical area of work, we spoke with Jim Rader, member of the RSI Committee on Tank Cars (CTC) and from The Greenbrier Companies. Four themes emerged from our conversation, as captured below.

1. Rail Safety Is Inherent

When it comes to creating a culture of safety, Rader notes the concept is deeper than a set of rules. “It’s a combination of an individual and a group’s inherent values that manifest themselves to control and eliminate risk, even when they encounter new situations.” Rail professionals are trained to handle cars every day, Rader points out, but a culture of safety becomes most apparent when something unusual occurs and the individual or group rises to the challenge with the appropriate behavior.

“Our world is driven by policies, procedures and practices that we write down to guide the behavior that we want our employees to follow,” Rader says. “What’s equally important is that the employees execute those procedures correctly and they understand the intent of the procedure and what it’s trying to solve.”

“Each employee must believe in the procedures. This is generally accomplished when the employee helps write the procedure so they understand its basis and purpose—that is, the employee has an invested interest in it,” Rader says, noting the procedure becomes inherent as individuals repeat it and the group observes the behavior. “That really defines the culture. I would add that when an employee witnesses someone deviating from a procedure, that’s unacceptable. Someone in the group, or the group as a whole, must point out the unacceptable behavior.”

2. Everyone Has a Role To Play in Rail Safety

Rader recalls a time he took a tour of a commercial airline’s maintenance facility and met one of the engineers. This was around the time of the 1988 Aloha Airlines Flight 243 incident, in which the plane made headlines for its fuselage disintegrating in flight, resulting in one fatality and 65 injuries. “[The engineer’s] statement was—and I remember to this day—‘It wasn’t our airplane, but it’s everybody’s problem.’ Meaning that it is every airline’s problem as far as changing the culture, and what to look for in the procedures,” Rader says. “We take that approach in the railroad industry today.”

3. Rail Safety Requires a Nuanced Understanding From the Public

When it comes to engaging the public on rail safety, progress is being made but there’s room for improvement. One of the most basic barriers is that the public does not engage with a railroad daily.

“If you get in your car, you are right next to a truck. You see these vehicles every day—you are part-and-parcel to that infrastructure,” Rader says. “But the public is not engaged in the operations of a railroad and, other than grade crossings, there is limited exposure of the public to railroad operations. I think [one] obstacle we have is that people do not know what they do not know.”    

For example, when information is shared with the public through the media or federal reports, the numbers presented tend to require greater context. Most incidents reported are minor but must still be accounted for. While these statistics should not be overlooked, many are not life-threatening. It is important for the public to understand this nuance.

4. Rail Safey Is Showing Positive Trends of Progress

Rail remains the safest and most efficient means of surface transportation, with investments toward improvement made regularly. “Internally, we know that [the industry spends] billions on safety improvements and research each year,” Rader says, noting use of tools like wayside detectors, which proactively monitor the conditions of the car in transit so as to capture degrading conditions before failure occurs.

“If you follow the Association of American Railroads (AAR) accident rates, [the data shows] a downward decline in accidents and incidents—and that decline began shortly after passage of the Staggers Rail Act of 1980,” Rader says.  

A Collaborative Approach to the Future of Rail Safety

Efforts made around safety practices involve many stakeholders. The collective power of RSI lies in its ability to reach a vast network of organizations and professionals tied to this industry.

One example of this in practice is RSI-100, a recommended practices document to help companies ensure their quality programs meet federal regulatory requirements. Other initiatives include a partnership between AAR and RSI, where AAR provides testing facilities to run physical tests on infrastructure and rail equipment, provided by RSI members. Looking at safety practices across the rail industry, the future is promising. With the right expertise and partnerships in place, continued progress is possible. Because in the big picture, the safety of rail is not just left to those who operate it—it is everyone’s business.

About the Railway Supply Institute (RSI)
The Railway Supply Institute (RSI) is dedicated to advancing safety, innovation, technology, and sustainability within the freight and passenger railway supplier industry, both in North America and global markets. As the voice of the industry, RSI strategically engages in critical and urgent industry matters by leveraging the technical expertise of our members to advocate in the legislative and regulatory arenas, foster education, host impactful events, and facilitate networking opportunities. For more information visit www.rsiweb.org, follow RSI on Twitter and LinkedIn

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