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Government shutdown takes toll on safety

Photo credit: Jim Allen/FreightWaves

The ability to prevent a catastrophic freight accident took a serious hit during the 35-day partial government shutdown as agencies in Washington, D.C. tasked with regulating safety struggled to operate with limited personnel.

President Trump announced today he would reopen the government for three weeks, until February 15, under a continuing resolution until Congress can agree to budget deal. But because of the record duration of the shutdown, which affected 25% of the government, much of the damage caused will continue even after a long-term deal is reached.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), tasked with investigating road, rail, marine, and airline accidents, drastically curtailed on-site investigations as a result of the shutdown – 87 accidents and counting, according to CNN report this week. Accidents not being investigated included a tractor trailer-school bus collision in New Jersey and the capsizing of an oil-spill response vessel on the lower Mississippi River, according to the report.

An independent agency not part of the U.S. Department of Transportation (whose agencies have shouldered the brunt of the shutdown), NTSB funding is usually included in the same funding packages as the Department of Transportation (DOT), which is the reason for its understaffing.

“While the NTSB staff are not criminal investigators, they have to go through some of the same processes and have the same concerns of any criminal investigation, which is, importantly, to retrieve perishable information from an accident scene,” a former NTSB communications director told FreightWaves. Short-term information at an accident scene becomes quickly perishable as the scene is recovered – equipment moved or rearranged, or witnesses leaving the scene, for example.

Losing such information inhibits the ability of staff members to determine the cause and reduce the risk of such accidents reoccurring. “It’s also important to remember that every investigation is also an investigation of DOT as well – has the Department put recommended regulations in place, and are they being administering properly,” the NTSB source said.

All-cargo air carriers operated by FedEx (NYSE: FDX), UPS (NYSE: UPS), and ABX Air, for example, while not subject to the same security screening protocols as freight moved by passenger airlines, are nonetheless subject to safety risks caused by the shutdown.

The Cargo Airline Association (CAA), which represents these carriers, was one of the organizations that signed a coalition letter sent earlier this month urging President Trump to “act now” to prevent negative impacts within the aviation sector due to cuts within the Federal Aviation Administration.

“As the shutdown persists, excepted air traffic controllers and workers in technical operations, who operate and maintain safety-critical navigational aids, surveillance, and communications equipment, are performing highly skilled and safety-critical services without pay,” the letter stated. “Moreover, the shutdown strains resources that are available for maintaining and servicing these critical” air traffic control systems.

CAA president Stephen Alterman said that while the shutdown affected his members less than the delays caused by security disruptions that can affect belly freight in passenger airlines, “we fly through the same air space using the same air traffic controllers, and having them work without pay is simply unacceptable,” he told FreightWaves.

In response to an article earlier this week on the business effects of the shutdown in the maritime sector, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) is maintaining essential safety, security and environmental protection services. The USCG also noted that it continues to perform certain activities directly related to port safety and environmental compliance, such as monitoring dangerous hazardous material transfers and container inspections.

“However, absent [a Congressional funding package] the longer the shutdown lasts, the more challenging it will become for the Coast Guard to maintain mission readiness,” Coast Guard spokeswoman Amy Midgett told FreightWaves in a statement yesterday. “We will continue to adjust our operations to provide those essential services to the public.”

John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.