NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD
Preserve the Integrity of Transportation Infrastructure
What is the Issue?
The transportation system is the backbone of America’s economy. Every day, people, goods, and services move across the country through our skies, and on our highways, pipelines, railways, and waterways. The system includes more than 3,300 airports, more than 3.9 million miles of public roads, 2 million miles of oil and gas pipelines, 120,000 miles of major railroads, and over 25,000 miles of commercially navigable waterways. It is imperative that our more than 6 million miles of roadways, pipelines, track, and waterways be adequately inspected and maintained.
With aviation’s rapid movement of people, goods and services it is vital that investments in technology, facilities, and runways be made. While inspection guidance exists in the United States, the inspection guidance provided for the owners and inspectors of the 600,000 bridges across the country is sometimes incomplete—which has contributed to disasters such as the 2007 collapse of a bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which killed 13 people. Our pipeline infrastructure was installed decades ago, yet it continues to transport resources and energy supplies to residential and commercial customers. Eight people were killed in San Bruno, California, in 2010 due to a pipeline rupture and subsequent fire. On the railways, a cracked segment of track caused a train to derail 22 cars in February 2003 in Tamaroa, Illinois, which released toxic chemicals and required the evacuation of 850 people. These incidents are clear indicators that it is imperative to maintain the integrity of our infrastructure.
What can be done. . .
We must invest in, maintain, and allocate appropriate resources to preserve our transportation infrastructure. When making these critical decisions, safety needs to have a seat at the table.
We are seeing a lot of recent investments in aviation infrastructure, but there are some key areas on which we should be focusing. For example, because of the encroachment on airports by their surrounding communities, appropriate airport runway safety areas should be proactively upgraded using an engineered materials arresting systems to prevent aircraft runway overruns that can lead to human injury and aircraft damage. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) can also take steps to improve weather information, particularly in harsh weather climates. For example, the FAA should correct deficiencies with the in-service automated weather sensor system (AWSS) stations, specifically the problems with present weather sensors and ceilometers, to ensure that the AWSS stations provide accurate information as soon as practical.
Other transportation modes also need to take steps to ensure that infrastructure can age gracefully and retain its structural integrity. For example, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration can promote pipeline integrity management by requiring pipeline operators to establish robust and effective route inspection procedures. Operators should also make sure that supervisory control and data acquisition systems are equipped to detect leaks and breaks. Railways also require periodic, standard inspection—from the tracks used to replace defective segments, to the track originally laid down, to even the railcars. But the highway network may present the largest problem in ensuring structural integrity. Although state and local governments control most roadways and bridges in the United States, highways serve as part of an integrated national network. It is, therefore, imperative that the Federal Highway Administration ensure that bridge inspector training is comprehensive and consistent across the country so that no issues are overlooked. Despite state and local governments owning roadways and bridges, there must be a national inspection standard that raises the bar of infrastructure integrity.
Consider the following information from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. In 2010, 4.2 trillion passenger miles were traveled on our nation’s roadways. With that mileage, you could take over 750 roundtrips to the planet Neptune. Another 389 million passenger miles occurred on ferryboats and 6.4 billion passenger miles on Amtrak and intercity rail. Domestic freight traffic carried by air, truck, rail, water, and pipeline totaled more than 4.3 trillion ton-miles. Maintaining the integrity of the roads, waterways, rails, and pipelines is critical to ensuring the safety of our families and friends and the security of our commercial goods.
Implement Positive Train Control Systems
What is the issue?
Trains are a part of daily life, whether transporting passengers or cargo. But we do not have to accept train accidents as a given, particularly those involving head-on collisions. Such collisions are often due to human factors, such as fatigue, sleeping disorders, use of medications, and distractions. Fatigue played a role in a July 2005 train collision in Anding, Mississippi, that killed all four operators. In May 2008 in Newton, Massachusetts, the operator of a transit train was killed after she fell into a microsleep and her train collided with another train. And once again, in April 2011 near Red Oak, Iowa, fatigue was the issue when two trains collided, killing two crew members.
What can be done. . .
Although human error cannot be eradicated, there is technology capable of supplementing the human operation of trains—positive train control. Such systems provide a safety redundancy by slowing or stopping a train that is not being operated in accordance with signal systems and operating rules, as was the case in every accident listed above. Positive train control prevents train-to-train collisions and overspeed derailments. For years, it has been in place on Amtrak trains in the Northeast, but for positive train control to reach its greatest safety potential, it must be implemented on all passenger and freight trains. With this technology, even if the train operator has fallen asleep or is distracted in some way, human lives will not be at risk.
Although legislation enacted in the aftermath of the Chatsworth, California, collision mandated positive train control systems by 2015, as of March 9, 2011, 10,000 miles of track were exempt from this mandate—which is a troubling fact. The Federal Railroad Administration accident database for 2011 attributes human factors issues as causal to most train collisions. Ninety-six head-on, rear-end, and side collision accidents occurred in 2011, and 83 percent of those accidents were determined to be caused by human factors. Positive train control can provide the critical redundancy to compensate for human error.
About the National Transportation Safety Board
“The NTSB is an independent federal agency charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident in the U.S. and significant accidents in other modes of transportation-railroad, highway, marine and pipeline. The NTSB determines the probable cause of each accident investigated and issues safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents. In addition, the NTSB carries out special studies concerning transportation safety and coordinates the resources of the Federal Government and other organizations to provide assistance to victims and their family members impacted by major transportation disasters.”