The Federal Railroad Administration (FR) would win any award for bureaucratic camouflage. Its most important purpose is to regulate the safety of the nation’s railroads — the track, equipment, operating conditions hazardous materials and other factors that now account for about 1300 fatalities and over 25,000 injuries per year. Yet the public almost never hears about what it is doing or not doing for their safety. What people do near about are the sudden evacuations of hundreds of people in a village, town or neighborhood when a train derailment full of chemical cargo starts leaking or is about to spill its deadly cargo or railroad-crossing collisions with cars.
To put it concisely, the FRA is really regulated by the $28 billion railroad industry rather than the reverse. In the past five years, report after report sharply criticizing the FRA has come from the General Accounting Office (GAO) of the Congress and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). These reports almost never make any press. They pile up on agency and Congressional shelves.
Matters are getting worse. The NTSB report pointed to a steady increase-in the annual number of rail accidents involving hazardous chemicals and gasses between 1985 and 1989. In 1985 there 842 such accidents and four years later there were 1,195.
From using tank cars that provide inadequate protection to poor, local emergency response plans, deficient evacuation procedures and insufficient training of railroad employees, the NTSB study spared no quarter. In late 1989 the GAO found that the number of “serious hazardous materials problems is increasing.”
More specifically, the GAO found nearly a 600 percent increase in the number of violations involving hazardous materials. So too has the number of identified defects in track, locomotive and equipment and other inspections.
Most of the data in these critical reports come from the FRA itself. The criticism is that the FRA does too little about these problems and avoids using its enforcement power and its ability to issue stronger safety standards. In short, the FRA does what the railroads want it to do and not much more.
Just obtained, internal documents from the FRA reveal some of the conflicts of interest inside the agency. Many FRA inspectors were inspecting the very railroads where they were previously employed. What’s more, many of these safety inspectors also retained re-employment rights or were on a leave of absence from railroads they were supposed to be inspecting.
The Department of Transportation’s Inspector General exposed this situation in 1981 and recommended the termination of these two conflicts of interest. The FRA agreed and claimed to do just that.
Now these internal memoranda show that the FRA’s decisions were appealed by the inspectors to the agency’s general counsel. By 1991, the General Counsel still had not ruled on the appeals!! Thus, there yet have been no actual terminations of these conflicts of interest. The GAO reported that railroads are going uninspected that inspections are not being done in a uniform manner and that the inspectors have wide discretion over who they penalize. This month, the House Subcommittee on Government Activities and Transportation will be investigating and demanding action. Not a decade too soon.