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GAO: Rail safety regulators should beef up close call reporting program

FRA will consider federal watchdog’s recommendations

The GAO last week issued a report on FRA's C3RS program. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

A federal program that encourages railroad workers to report working conditions that could compromise safety is underutilized, according to a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The program, the Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS), seeks to improve railroad safety by collecting reports from employees that describe unsafe situations that could potentially lead to more serious consequences, according to GAO. 

In the program, started as a pilot in 2007, employees offer information on close calls and unsafe events anonymously, with the idea of protecting employees from railroad disciplinary action. The tips help railroads take actions to address the unsafe events. 

But the program has experienced little participation. Of the nearly 800 railroads in the U.S., only 23 have been involved in it as of August 2022 — of which nine are classified as passenger, one as Class II and 13 as Class III, GAO said. 

“FRA officials recognize that C3RS reporting is a challenge for participating railroads’ PRTs [peer review teams] and believe the primary cause of this challenge is employees’ misunderstanding the purpose and intent of the C3RS program,” the report said. 

The railroads that have participated in the program say it has enabled them to improve safety culture and provide access to more safety information. However, they also note that sometimes it is more challenging to evaluate the root cause of an incident because a report can lack important details, such as why or how an unsafe event occurred. 

Railroads that have not participated in the program maintain there are concerns about confidentiality, and they have similar internal reporting systems already. For instance, a railroad with an already established internal system might find it administratively duplicative to have two reporting systems, and those that have these systems encounter varying levels of participation with the existing internal systems. 

GAO recommended that FRA beef up efforts to share information about the confidential calling program, including information that addresses broader safety trends and success stories. 

“By not effectively communicating C3RS safety trends or success stories to the wider railroad industry, nonparticipating stakeholders may be unaware of important and relevant safety information,” the GAO report said. “Further, the Federal Railroad Administration may miss opportunities to demonstrate the C3RS program’s benefits to a wider audience through communication of success stories, a practice that could help increase program participation.”

FRA concurred with GAO’s recommendations, according to GAO’s report.

“FRA believes that the Confidential Close Call Reporting System has been successful, and we will continue to improve upon it based upon the GAO’s recommendations,” FRA told FreightWaves.

FRA partners with NASA to administer the program. NASA serves as a third party that collects, analyzes and maintains the confidential data, GAO says. NASA is also accustomed to analyzing C3RS information and familiar with the best practices.

According to the report, some examples of close calls include a train missing a temporary speed restriction; a train exceeding an authorized maximum speed; equipment or signal failure; a run-through switch in which a train goes through a misaligned switch and damages it; and inadequate track protection during its maintenance. 

“A known close call is generally an event that is below FRA’s reporting threshold for accidents and does not involve an injury but would require immediate managerial notification to be considered an eligible C3RS close call event,” GAO said. “Examples of close call events that must be reported immediately to railroad management include, but are not limited to, mishaps when loading a rail car, run-through switches, minor derailments and a worker nearly struck by a moving train.”

Participation in the reporting program entails a railroad and relevant employee labor organizations entering into an agreement with FRA. FRA, railroad management and, if applicable, labor representatives, develop the agreement on an individual basis. 

GAO studied the issue in response to provisions in a past congressional appropriations bill. The federal agency was charged with examining the extent that railroads participate in the confidential calling program as well as looking at how the current program reflects leading practices for safety-reporting systems.

In assembling the report, GAO talked with two railroad labor organizations, three industry associations representing passenger and freight railroads and the Short Line Safety Institute, which performs safety culture assessments. GAO also examined other federal programs involved in similar reporting programs. 

FRA estimates that nearly 40% of train and rail equipment accidents between 2022-21 were due to human-factor errors. 

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.