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Remarks at 2011 Harriman Awards, Washington, DC
Deborah A. P. Hersman
Harriman Awards, Washington, DC

It's great to be back with railroaders — people who love trains — employees and industry leaders who do so much to make railroads safe and successful.

Isn't the Newseum great! I especially like the photos in the Pulitzer gallery. One shows immigrants riding on top of a train, reminding us that people rely on railroads for life's necessities and, in many cases, for a brighter future.

Today's setting reminds me that journalism is said to be "the first draft of history." And it is history — the railroads' past — and railroads' safer future that I want to talk about today.

This week, we are between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. On May 7, a long shot won the Derby; but today a shoo-in receives the top Harriman.

There's a reason that this thoroughbred is taking home the gold.

Here's how Wick (Moorman) talked about Norfolk Southern's twenty-one Harrimans in a January interview when Railway Age named him Railroader of the Year:

"For the past 21 years, we have absolutely and resolutely focused on safety … we do it because we want to make sure everyone goes home safely."

That's why we're here, so everyone goes home safely … In March, I attended Norfolk Southern's Safety Expo and Awards and visited its export coal operations. I saw stenciled on a railroad shed: "think safe, work safe, home safe."

Yet, safety is much more than a slogan at NS. It is a vigorous and mature safety program. This year it is twenty-two consecutive Harriman Awards.

But, this award is not given; nor is it a given. It is earned.

To Wick and your thoroughbred team: Congratulations! Again.

And, congratulations, KCS, for your fifth straight Harriman Award, and to Buffalo & Pittsburgh and to Gary Railway for your golds.

As you know, Edward Henry Harriman's widow started the Harriman Awards in 1913 to recognize railroads with the "least loss of life." She had good reason to encourage railroad safety. As Mark Aldrich wrote in Death Rode the Rails, early last century, railroads annually killed or maimed tens of thousands of workers, passengers and trespassers.

From 1882 to 1912, nearly half — 48 percent — of all U.S. deaths were from railroad accidents. Typhoid fever, a distant second, accounted for just 7 percent. Mark Twain mocked the public worries. He said that rail travel was not as dangerous as sleeping — since many more people died in bed.

There is no mocking now. As an industry, look at how far you have come. From thousands killed on the job a century ago to an annual average of 20 over the past ten years.

Things have changed.

Yet, as we saw last month outside Red Oak, Iowa, when a locomotive collided with a maintenance-of-way train, killing two employees, there is still more work to do.

And, as the economy rebounds, demand for freight transportation and your services will intensify. As you grow, you must have the programs in place to assure that new employees understand and adopt your safety culture.

Looking into the future: How will you improve your safety performance over the next century of Harriman Awards?

What are you doing to make sure every employee gets home safely?

We know the key safety challenges — increasingly, they trace back to the human element.

In our investigations, the NTSB always looks at the human, the machine, and the environment. What we are finding is that the machines that railroads use are built to be more reliable … and the environment that railroaders work in is designed with more redundancies … but the railroader is still a human.

And operational accidents — whether on the mainline or in yards or at grade crossings — can be prevented with technology.

You can look at other modes and see dramatic benefits from technology.

In aviation, the onboard Traffic Collision and Avoidance System, or TCAS, monitors the airspace around the aircraft to detect other airplanes and warn pilots of their presence.

What technology can do today is breathtaking. In fact, we've come to rely on it. But here's the irony, technology relies on us. Humans are the ones who design it, build it, maintain it, and must use it properly. And we've seen times when technology failed. You may recall the 2006 mid-air collision in Brazil when an American business jet collided with a Brazilian commercial 737 — killing 154 — in part because the TCAS was inadvertently switched off by the crew.

Technology can provide dramatic safety solutions to old problems. But humans remain in the loop. So, what does that mean for railroads?

Always be vigilant. And, never stop working on safety improvements and imagining what technology can do for us humans.

What would Harriman think of the railroad industry today? Would he recognize it? Would he understand things like Positive Train Control or Electronically Controlled Pneumatic Braking Systems?

What is the future for your railroad? How will you prevent accidents in your yards, the mainline, or at grade crossings?

What will people be talking about at the Harriman Awards in 2111?

We're here in a museum all about the news. If you look around, you'll see that news is most often about discovery, dissension, and disasters.

Today, railroads are rarely in the news. And, that's good news. Operating safely is what you do, but it doesn't make headlines. Yet, you are doing remarkable work for our economy, our nation, and our quality of life.

And, remarkable work ensuring employees — all go home safely.

So, I leave you with one request: Set your standards high. As Michelangelo said, "The greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it."