Unmaintained tracks cause derailments to increase 18%

The number of train derailments - like the recent Amtrak accident in Iowa that killed one person and injured 96 others -- have increased by nearly 20 percent over the past four years.

Both the Federal Railroad Administration and the Department of Transportation's Inspector General have found poorly maintained track and inadequate inspections by the railroads could be partly to blame.

The number of railroad industry inspectors has been reduced and the federal and state governments have only 550 people to make sure that the industry is adequately checking 230,000 miles of track.

FRA's Associate Administrator for Safety, George Gavalla, said the agency has focused its efforts on heavily used tracks and rail yards, and all tracks that carry passengers and hazardous materials. On those tracks, accidents are down, he said. Many of the derailments occur in yards when crews assemble train cars.

Overall, FRA statistics show that the number of derailments on all tracks and rail yards rose by 18 percent between 1997 and 2000, from 1,741 to 2,059.

"Like any big business, railroads will try to cut corners," said Steven Moss, a partner in the California consulting firm of M. Cubed, which studies transportation safety. "They allow their track and other stock to depreciate and get rundown and don't make their proper safety investments until they are forced to do so."

The rise in derailments was addressed March 29 at a House railroads subcommittee hearing.

"When those kinds of numbers are up, rail passengers and the general public could be at risk," said the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Jack Quinn (R-NY).

The FRA has come under fire as well. In January, the Department of Transportation Inspector General, who is examining FRA's safety program, noted "shortfalls in... enforcement of identified safety deficiencies, such as widespread track defects."

Acting Federal Railroad Administrator Mark Lindsey said the safety program was still a work in progress.

"Like all programs of this nature, it continues to be refined as strengths and weaknesses are identified," he said.

2001 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers