Notation 8457: The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has reviewed the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) titled “Track Safety Standards; Improving Rail Integrity,” which was published in the Federal Register on October 19, 2012.
As noted in the supplementary information provided with the NPRM, this NPRM is part of the FRA’s response to the mandate of section 403 of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA). In this NPRM the FRA proposes substantive changes to the current rule, including requirements in the following subject areas: defective rails, rail inspection for internal flaws, rail flaw remedial actions, minimum qualification requirements for rail flaw detection equipment operators, and inspection records.
Section 403(a) of the RSIA required the Secretary of Transportation to conduct a study of track issues, the Track Inspection Time Study (Study), to determine whether (1) track inspection intervals should be amended, (2) track remedial action requirements should be amended, (3) different track inspection and repair priorities or methods should be required, and (4) the speed of track inspection vehicles and the scope of territory they cover allow for proper inspection and whether such speed and scope should be regulated. The Study concluded with four issues for consideration to improve the track inspection process: (1) expanding the use of automated inspection systems to supplement visual inspections, (2) standardizing training requirements for track inspectors, (3) considering a maximum inspection speed for track inspection vehicles, and (4) influencing safety culture through a safety reporting system.
COMMENTS ON FRA RESPONSE TO THE RSIA
The NTSB offers the following comments on FRA actions in response to the RSIA before making comments specific to this rulemaking.
Amendments to track inspection intervals
This NPRM proposes substantial changes to regulations on the scheduling of internal rail inspections, and the NTSB agrees that substantial changes are needed to the current rule on rail inspection intervals. This NPRM proposes a new performance-based system for regulating rail inspections. The way performance will be assessed is the key to the success of this regulation. The NTSB has several concerns with section 213.237, Inspection of Rail, of the proposed rule that are discussed in the next section of this letter discussing comments specific to this proposed rule.
Amendments to track remedial action requirements
The NTSB notes that the changes to the remedial action table for specific defect types proposed in this NPRM are improvements on the existing requirements. Comments are provided in the next section of this letter discussing specific sections of this proposed rule.
Requirements for different track inspection methods
The Study states that the railroad industry currently conducts regularly scheduled visual inspections of rail. These visual inspections are conducted either on foot or in a hi-rail vehicle. On a hi-rail, more than one inspector may conduct an inspection so that multiple tracks can be inspected; for example, an inspection may be conducted by two inspectors, each focusing on a single track. During such inspections, inspectors are expected to look for all track defects addressed in the Track Safety Standards.
The Study also suggests that multiple tracks would not be inspected by one inspector during a track inspection. However, this scenario is inconsistent with the current rule found at Title 49 subsection 213.233. The current rule allows up to two tracks to be inspected simultaneously by one inspector, or up to four tracks to be inspected simultaneously by two inspectors. Further, the NPRM does not propose any changes to this subsection.
The NTSB believes that under the allowed inspection practices that would remain unchanged under the proposed rulemaking, the inspection frequency requirement would be satisfied but the quality of the inspection would be seriously compromised. When inspecting track from a typical hi-rail vehicle, an inspector can see the track structure in front from about 20 feet. In addition to operating the vehicle and looking in the direction of travel for track defects 20 feet in front, an inspector may be expected to inspect an adjacent track up to 30 feet to the side. Furthermore, part of the inspection may include the sound or feel of the track as the inspection vehicle rides over the track. These parts of the inspection are not performed if the inspector is inspecting adjacent track. In addition, most defective track conditions occur after a period of gradual deterioration and are not observed during a single inspection cycle, although some conditions become visible to normal inspection when there is a rapid failure. The most important cause of track structure deterioration is rail traffic; the more severe the traffic conditions—measured by total tonnage, individual loads, car conditions, train handling, and speed—the greater the rate of deterioration will be. The NTSB believes that both gradual deterioration and rapid failures can create serious hazards, and the probability of detecting these hazards is substantially reduced when multiple tracks are being inspected simultaneously.
The objective of track inspections is to keep imperfect track conditions from deteriorating beyond acceptable limits. This is best done by requiring railroads to use Gage Restraint Measurement Systems (GRMS) or other mechanical and electrical track inspection devices to supplement visual inspections. When inspectors are alerted to defective track conditions from these other devices, they can focus their attention on a specific condition or on problem areas.
The NTSB agrees with the findings in the Study that rail safety can be enhanced with expanded use of automated systems for track inspection. Track inspectors who conduct visual inspections cannot readily or easily detect certain track defects that automated inspection systems routinely detect. Increased use of automated inspection systems would provide the opportunity for inspectors to conduct more thorough visual inspections at problem areas identified by the automated inspection systems, thus helping to prevent a defect from causing a derailment. The regulations are too focused on visual inspections and do not specify a frequency of use of GRMS or mechanical, electrical, and other track inspection devices for high-tonnage routes, passenger train routes, and hazardous materials routes that can and will deteriorate beyond federal requirements if not inspected more closely than by a track inspector during a routine hi-rail inspection. The NTSB believes that the expanded use of automated inspection systems beyond those currently prescribed in the regulations will help prevent defective conditions, such as those caused by gradual deterioration of the track, that could cause derailments from being missed during a visual inspection.
As a result of the investigation of the Home Valley, Washington, accident in which a passenger train derailed because of gradually deteriorating track conditions, the NTSB made the following safety recommendation to the FRA:
Extend to all classes of track safety standards for concrete crossties that address at a minimum the following: limits for rail seat abrasion, concrete crosstie pad wear limits, missing or broken rail fasteners, loss of appropriate fastener toeload pressure, improper fastener configurations, and excessive lateral rail movement (R-06-19).
The NTSB also discussed the expanded use of automated inspections for concrete crossties, inspector training, and the amount of time allowed for conducting a track inspection.
The Study cited two specific track defects that are more difficult to detect through visual track inspection and that could benefit from the use of automated inspections: rail seat abrasion and torch cut bolt holes. The NPRM states the following about inspection for rail set deterioration:
The Concrete Crossties final rule [that was] published on April 1, 2011, new Sec. 213.234, “Automated inspection of track constructed with concrete crossties,” specifically employs the use of automated inspection “to measure for rail seat deterioration.”
Prohibition of torch cut bolt holes has been in effect since 1999 in track Class 2 and above and is codified in sections 213.121(g) and 213.351(f). Torch cut bolt holes are easily identifiable through rail flaw detection technology and photographic joint bar technology, both of which are currently in use. The NTSB agrees that the use of automated inspections has been sufficiently expanded to inspect concrete ties for rail seat abrasion and rail cant deficiencies and also for torch cut joint bar inspections. However, the NTSB believes that a combination of visual inspections and automated track inspection systems should be required for use not just in track with concrete ties but in all high-tonnage routes, passenger train routes, and hazardous materials routes, because all tracks are susceptible to gradually deteriorating conditions that are difficult to detect during visual inspections.
During the Home Valley accident investigation, the NTSB found that the track was inspected by the BNSF Railway Company track geometry car on May 25, 2004, and again on September 23, 2004. During both inspections, the area of curve No. 58B was flagged yellow as a maintenance area for gage width. According to the track inspector, the roadmaster did not give him a copy of the September geometry car values until December 2004. Both the regular inspector and the substitute inspector from the adjacent territory indicated that they had received little, if any, training on concrete crosstie inspection. Both inspectors spoke of being “self taught,” and neither inspector indicated that he had received any training about how to read reports generated by the track geometry car.
In this NPRM, the FRA issued policy guidance to encourage track owners and railroads to provide the information from their automated track inspections in a usable format to those persons designated as fully qualified and assigned to inspect or repair the track over which an automated inspection was made. The NTSB notes that this guidance is only a recommendation and does not mandate that the inspection information be made available to track inspectors. Therefore the NTSB believes that the FRA will have to closely monitor and discuss the topic with track owners.
Regulation of track inspection vehicle speed
The Study addressed whether track hi-rail inspection speed should be specified. The Study concluded that specifying limits to hi-rail inspection speeds could be “counterproductive.” The Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) Working Group found that the existing reliance on the “inspector’s discretion,” as noted in section 213.233, should generally govern track inspection speed. The NTSB believes that if track inspectors are required to find only defects that occur rapidly, a discretionary speed would be appropriate, but if inspectors are expected to detect gradual degradation patterns, the inspectors need to travel more slowly. Again, the speed would be at the inspector’s discretion, if the inspector is afforded the required track time to achieve this level of observation.
The Study showed that 60 percent of the track inspectors surveyed said that weather, time pressure to complete work, dispatcher decisions, and inadequate track time were all factors that caused variations in inspection speed. These factors are conditions that are outside of the inspectors’ control when they determine the inspection speed. For example, the NTSB found during the Home Valley accident investigation that because of the high amount of train traffic (about 57 trains a day over the 58 miles of the inspector’s assigned territory), the track inspector had about 1/2 hour or less to get from station to station while inspecting track from a hi-rail vehicle. Eighteen stations were about 10 to 15 miles apart. The inspector’s reported track inspection speed varied from 20 to 25 mph. The NTSB believes that in this case and other cases in which track inspectors are forced to travel faster because of train traffic, inspectors no longer have the discretion to travel more slowly when necessary.
This conflict of priorities relates to an issue identified in the Study pertaining to railroad operation practices and safety culture. The NTSB agrees with the Study that many of the time pressures on track inspectors are within railroad operations control and established practices that often limit the amount of track time available for track inspectors. In addition, the Study reported that increasing amounts of noninspection duties further reduce track inspection time. The NTSB believes that railroads and owners of track have the responsibility to make accommodations for track inspectors to inspect track in accordance with section 213.233 and not leave to the inspectors alone the choice between train operations and inspection. The NTSB also believes that this is a safety culture issue that was identified in the Study and should be addressed in the RSAC Risk Reduction Working Group.
Additional training requirements for track inspectors
The Study also addressed whether the FRA should develop additional training requirements for track inspectors. This NPRM and another NPRM that was recently published, titled Training, Qualifications, and Oversight for Safety-Related Railroad Employees, proposed new regulations for training and qualification of track inspectors and operators of rail inspection equipment. This NPRM proposes to create a new regulation, section 213.238, that defines a qualified operator of rail flaw detection equipment and requires that each provider of rail flaw detection service have a documented training program to ensure (1) that a rail flaw detection equipment operator is qualified to operate each of the various types of equipment currently utilized in the industry and (2) that proper training is provided in the use of newly developed technologies. The NTSB believes that this training and recurrent training for new technologies will provide the rail flaw detection equipment operators with increased knowledge for determining whether an inspection was a valid inspection for internal rail defects as prescribed in section 213.237.
The NPRM on Training, Qualifications, and Oversight for Safety-Related Railroad Employees proposed that employees charged with inspection of track or railroad equipment be considered safety-related railroad employees that each employer must train and qualify. The proposed training for employees responsible for inspecting track and railroad equipment is expected to cover all aspects of their duties related to complying with the regulations and would include techniques for identifying defective conditions and associated remedial actions to be taken to correct critical safety defects that are known to contribute to derailments, accidents, incidents, or injuries. The NTSB believes that if the intent of the Training, Qualifications, and Oversight for Safety-Related Railroad Employees NPRM is achieved and codified, no further action would be necessary.
COMMENTS SPECIFIC TO THIS NPRM
Below, the NTSB offers comments on the proposed regulations specific to this NPRM.
Section 213.113, Defective Rails
The NTSB concurs with the FRA’s proposal to provide railroads with a 4-hour period in which to verify that a suspected defect exists in a rail section in order to increase rail inspection vehicle utilization for the identification of more serious rail defects. The NTSB also concurs with the FRA’s proposed changes to the remedial action table (on page 64269), with the following recommended changes:
1. Change the Bolt Hole Crack Defect heading under the length of defect for “1-inch” cracks to “1 1/2-inch” cracks for the B remedial action.
2. The transverse fissure, detail fracture, engine burn fracture, and defective weld defects should be grouped together to more clearly indicate that remedial actions for sizes 5 percent to 100 percent apply to all defect types within the group.
3. Similarly, the horizontal split head, vertical split head, split web, piped rail, head web separation, and defective weld (longitudinal) defect types should be grouped together to more clearly indicate that the remedial actions for lengths ranging from 1 inch to more than 4 inches or showing a break out in the rail head apply to all defect types within the group.
Section 213.119, Continuous Welded Rail; Plan Contents
The FRA proposes removing the requirement under paragraph (h)(7)(ii) of the section to generate a Joint Bar Fracture Report for every cracked or broken continuous welded rail (CWR) joint bar that the track owner discovers during the course of an inspection. This requirement was a result of the NTSB’s investigation of the derailment in Minot, North Dakota, and the NTSB’s safety recommendation to the FRA:
Establish a program to periodically review [CWR] joint bar inspection data from railroads and [FRA] track inspectors and, when determined necessary, require railroads to increase the frequency or improve the methods of inspection of joint bars in [CWR]. (R-04-2)
Currently under this section, after February 1, 2010, any track owner could petition the FRA to conduct a technical conference to review fracture report data submitted through December 2009 and assess the necessity for continuing to collect these data. One Class 1 railroad submitted a petition to the FRA, and on October 26, 2010, a meeting of the RSAC Track Standards Working Group served as a forum for a technical conference to evaluate whether there was a continued need to collect these reports. The RSAC group ultimately determined that the reports were costly and burdensome to the railroads and their employees and provided little useful data to prevent failures of CWR joint bars because the reports gathered a limited amount of information only after the joint bar was broken.
Instead, the RSAC Working Group recommended that a new study be conducted to determine what conditions lead to CWR joint bar failures and include a description of the overall condition of the track in the vicinity of the failed joint(s): photographic evidence of the failed joint; track geometry (gage, alignment, profile, cross-level) at the joint location; and the maintenance history at the joint location. Two Class 1 railroads agreed to participate in the study to provide better data to pinpoint why CWR joint bars fail. The NTSB agrees with the FRA on removing the paperwork burden as long as the intent of the recommendation and outcomes of the study continue to be developed.
Section 213.237, Inspection of Rail
As a result of the NTSB’s investigation of the New Brighton, Pennsylvania, derailment, the NTSB developed Safety Recommendation R-08-10, in which the NTSB recommended that the FRA require railroads to develop rail inspection and maintenance programs based on damage-tolerance principles and demonstrate how those programs would identify and remove internal rail defects before the defects reach a critical size to cause catastrophic rail failures. Furthermore, the NTSB recommended that these programs should take into account, at a minimum, accumulated tonnage, track geometry, rail surface conditions, rail head wear, rail steel specifications, track support, residual stresses in the rail, rail defect growth rates, and temperature differentials. In a damage-tolerance approach, a predicted time to failure is determined by predicting crack growth rates from a detectable size to a size that is expected to cause fast fracture (critical size), and actions are put in place to mitigate the risk of failure. A key principle of the damage-tolerance approach is to identify areas of high stress that are most likely to produce a future service failure and reduce risk of failure in the areas of high stress through timely inspections, repair, or replacement.
In section 213.237(a) of the proposed rule, the FRA proposes a new performance-based measure for determining internal rail inspection frequencies. Track owners may use a method of their choice to schedule inspections provided that their service failure rates do not exceed a performance target for 2 consecutive years. The performance target is calculated as the number of service failures per year per mile of track across a segment of track. The segment length is determined by the track owner or railroad and according to the proposed rule “is used to determine the milepost limits for the individual rail inspection frequency.”
Given the variability in rail crack growth rates and critical crack sizes observed in industry due to a variety of factors, the performance-based risk-management approach may be a reasonable alternative method that incorporates key aspects of damage-tolerance principles to mitigate failure risk. The rail industry has adopted complex algorithms and methods to predict rail failure risk, followed by actions to mitigate the risk of failure. However, methods used to assess the performance of this form of risk management is a critical aspect to determine if the performance-based approach sufficiently accounts for the many factors that can influence rail failure in a way that is consistent with damage-tolerance principles.
The NTSB believes that in order to be consistent with damage-tolerance principles, the algorithms and methods used by the track owners should identify areas of high stress, and the program should include actions to reduce risk of failure in these areas through timely inspections, repair, or replacement of the track. Areas of high stress could include areas with worn rail, poor track support, rail with high accumulated tonnage, or rail with high residual stresses, which are features identified in NTSB Safety Recommendation R 08 10.
The key to understanding whether the performance-based approach is accomplishing the objective is through a performance assessment. The NTSB believes that the performance assessment should include an assessment of whether areas of high stress are being identified and risk of failure is being mitigated by the track owners in a timely manner. Because of the variability of track conditions and service conditions, an assessment that is conducted across a wide area may not be sufficiently focused to identify the areas of high stress. The track owners analyze the track at varying length scales to identify track in need of maintenance, and those length scales are not necessarily the same lengths used to schedule inspections. If the FRA assessment of track owner performance is based only on segment lengths used to determine inspection frequency, then track owner performance in identifying and promptly addressing areas of high stress, such as local areas of worn rail, may not be adequately assessed.
The FRA recently issued Safety Advisory 2012-04 as a result of the July 11, 2012, derailment in Columbus, Ohio, to remind track owners, railroads, and their track inspectors of the importance of complying with the applicable rail management programs and engineering procedures that address rail with severe rail head wear and rolling contact fatigue (RCF) conditions. Safety Advisory 2012-04 included recommendations to track owners to ensure that their employees and other entities performing track inspections comply with the requirements of the applicable engineering procedures that address critical rail head wear, particularly if the track under inspection exhibits significant RCF or a sudden increase in localized rail failure. In the accident investigation that prompted Safety Advisory 2012-04, the FRA noted that five rail failures had occurred on various portions of the track subsequent to the last nondestructive rail inspection at this location. The FRA also stated that this accelerated defect development was possibly influenced by the significant rail head wear, and could be attributed to the presence of the RCF. The NTSB has cited worn rail conditions in other accidents including Superior, Wisconsin, and New Brighton, Pennsylvania. Many track owners are using an adaptive-scheduling approach to schedule internal rail inspections, yet accidents continue to occur in locations where rail shows substantial wear in areas that have shown previous service failures.
The NTSB believes the FRA should be looking at rail service failure history in a way that it can assess the effectiveness of the track owner’s approach to identifying areas of weakness and the timeliness and effectiveness of the mitigating actions. Rail service failure history can be an indicator of an area of high stress that is at higher risk of future failure. The FRA suggests in the preamble of the proposed rule that the FRA can assess this performance in this way by looking at rail failure records and comparing milepost locations. However, there is no reporting requirement for presenting these data in the proposed regulation, and there is no systematic approach to how the FRA would use these data to ensure acceptable performance.
The track owners have databases that record rail service failures. An expectation that this information is available to the track owners is implied in section 213.237(d)(1) of the proposed rule, which states, “if the performance target rate is not met for two consecutive years, then for the area where the greatest number of service failures is occurring,” perform one of two actions. The NTSB believes that track owners should be required to regularly report rail service failure information to the FRA; such information should include, at a minimum, failure location (milepost) and time of discovery. The NTSB also believes that the FRA should review service failure data on a regular basis across entire segments to assess overall performance of the track owner as proposed in this rule, but also in shorter lengths of track to assess track owner performance in timely identification and remediation of areas that are at higher risk of failure.
The NTSB believes that there are problems with relating the segment length to the “milepost limits for the individual rail inspection frequency” in section 213.237(b) of the proposed rule. Track owners may need to adjust inspection frequency on portions of a segment, and the areas that require adjustment could vary from year to year. As written, the rule limits the flexibility to conduct additional inspections on portions of a segment, since that would change the inspection frequency for that portion of the segment. The track owner would have to inspect the entire segment at that same frequency or file with the FRA to establish new smaller segments with different inspection frequencies. In either case, this could provide a disincentive to conduct targeted inspections of problem areas.
The NTSB believes that there is a problem with the proposed remedial action, which states that if a track owner’s performance target is not met for 2 consecutive years, the track owner must do one of two actions:
(i) The inspection tonnage interval between tests must be reduced to 10 million gross tons (mgt); or
(ii) The class of track must be reduced to Class 2 until the target service failure rate is achieved.
The NTSB believes that there may be cases where the performance target is not achieved, and the track owner may be inspecting at or near a 10-mgt interval. In order to account for all potential cases, the tonnage between inspections for the penalty in (i) should be a fraction (such as half) of the average of the last 2 years or 10 mgt, whichever is less.
Section 213.237(c)(2), Inspection of Rail
As a result of the NTSB’s investigation of the Nodaway, Iowa, accident, the NTSB issued Safety Recommendation R-02-5 to the FRA: “Require railroads to conduct ultrasonic or other appropriate inspections to ensure that rail used to replace defective segments of existing rail is free from internal defects.” The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the derailment of Amtrak train No. 5-17 was the failure of the rail beneath the train, due to undetected internal defects. Contributing to the accident was the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway’s lack of a comprehensive method for ensuring that replacement rail was free from internal defects.
This section of the proposed rule is inconsistent with good practice in the industry as described in the FRA’s Safety Advisory (SA) 2006-02, which was issued on March 8, 2006, with recommended industry guidelines for “plug rail.” The SA recommended that the entire length of any rail that is removed from track and stored for reuse should be retested for internal flaws. The FRA also recognized that some railroads do not have the equipment to test second-hand rail in accordance with the recommendation, and railroads were encouraged to develop a classification program intended to decrease the likelihood that a railroad will install second-hand rail containing defects back into active track. In addition, the FRA recommended that a highly visible permanent marking system be developed and used to mark defective rails that railroads removed from track after identifying internal defects in those rails.
Instead of incorporating the SA recommended practice into the NPRM for rulemaking, the FRA has proposed the following:
(2) The track owner must be able to verify that the plug rail has not accumulated more than a total of 30 mgt in previous and new locations since its last internal rail flaw test, before the next test on the rail required by this section is performed.
NTSB staff consistently stated their belief during the RSAC Working Group meetings that the proposed tonnage thresholds were too high. During the RSAC process, railroads had proposed a 10-mgt threshold. The railroads have stated that it is impractical to remove the rail from service before any traffic has traveled on it after an in-track inspection and they need the 10 mgt for scheduling. They have also said that in-track inspections are much more effective at detecting internal rail defects than using a portable device for inspections of the removed rail, although no data have been presented to support this position. The NTSB believes that a threshold of 10 percent of the inspection interval, which would be a maximum of 3 mgt at an inspection interval of 30 mgt, is the appropriate safety threshold.
The NTSB’s New Brighton accident investigation highlighted that as rail wear increases, cracks grow faster and will cause rail fractures at smaller crack sizes, regardless of rail profile. Plug rail has some degree of wear so it can be placed into the track so there is a smooth rail head transition between the rail ends. Appropriate rail grinding can reduce residual stresses and decrease stress concentrations by maintaining an appropriate rail head profile, but quantifying that effect is difficult. In addition, used rail history is not always known, including the accumulated fatigue and tonnage. Crack growth models from the Department of Transportation’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Center have shown that in some cases, cracks can grow from undetectable to failure in less than 10 mgt, which is one of the reasons the NTSB does not consider the 30-mgt threshold to be appropriate for all conditions.
The NTSB believes the accumulation of 30 mgt before ensuring replacement rail is free from detectable defects is unacceptable. In addition, the NTSB did not agree with the FRA’s second part of the SA that recognized that some railroads do not have the equipment to test second-hand rail in accordance with the recommendation. No matter what railroad owns the track, a rail defect can grow appreciably in 30 mgt or even sustain a rail service failure before it is tested in accordance with this NPRM. Therefore, the NTSB believes that Safety Recommendation R-02-5 needs to be incorporated in this NPRM in its entirety.
Section 213.238, Qualified Operator
The NTSB concurs with the proposal to create a new regulation that defines a qualified operator of rail flaw detection equipment to conduct a valid continuous search for internal rail defects and requires that each provider of rail flaw detection service have a documented training program to ensure that a rail flaw detection equipment operator is qualified to operate each of the various types of equipment currently utilized in the industry and that proper training is provided in the use of newly developed technologies. The NTSB believes that this training and recurrent training as well as adjusting the training program for new technologies will provide rail flaw detection equipment operators with better information for determining whether an inspection was a valid continuous inspection for internal rail defects as prescribed in section 213.237.
Section 213.241, Inspection Records
The NTSB concurs with the FRA proposal to require that rail inspection records include the date of inspection; track identification and milepost for each location tested; the type of defect found and size, if not removed prior to traffic; and initial remedial action as required by section 213.113. The NTSB also concurs with the proposed requirement that all tracks that do not receive a valid inspection are documented in the railroad inspection records.
The NTSB appreciates the opportunity to comment on this proposed rulemaking and believes that the FRA should consider maintaining and enhancing the safety of railroad transportation when it considers changes to the final rule.