The Federal Railroad Administration reports that approximately 3,000 train accidents occur each year in the United States with nearly 1,000 people dying as a result. Railroad accidents may take the form of a collision with another train, a car or bus, or even a solo derailment or fire. While the causes of such accidents are numerous, the most common ones are; mechanical or electrical failures; track, roadbed and structural defects or maintenance problems; and human error, including signal and communication problems, crew fatigue or inexperience.
While trains are convenient for travel and for transporting goods, they have become a greater danger over the years as their speed has increased. Very few passengers were killed in a single U.S. train wreck up until 1853. The early trains ran slower, night travel was rare, and there were not many of them in operation.
Common carriers are entities that transport people or goods according to defined routes and schedules. They include railways, as well as airlines, cruise ships, trucking companies, and other transportation-for-hire providers. The law imposes on common carriers the duty to make sure that their cargo or passengers safely reach their destinations, and also holds them liable for injuries to a passenger that happens during transportation if the carrier could have prevented the accident by exercising greater care.
Federal and State Laws
Under the Interstate Commerce Act, Congress has the authority to regulate common carriers that transport passengers or cargo across state lines. Federal laws governing railways take precedence, but each state also regulates the public transportation systems operating within its state.
The Department of Transportation Act of 1966 created the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to oversee railroad operations, and promulgate and enforce rail safety regulations. Federal and state laws also set forth specific common carrier regulations. The regulations usually apply to equipment requirements, licensing, and transportation procedures.
A railroad is required by Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regulations at Title 49, Part 225 of the Code of Federal Regulations to use the current FRA Guide for Preparing Accident Incident Reports ("Guide" or "reporting guide") when preparing its monthly report. The instructions and interpretations contained in this publication are provided to assist railroads in meeting this obligation.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 requires all employers, including railroads, to "maintain accurate records of, and to make periodic reports on, work-related deaths, injuries and illnesses." At the time of its issuance, railroads were subject to the Accident Reports Act of 1910, which states that: "It shall be the duty of every common carrier engaged in interstate or foreign commerce by railroad to make to the Secretary of Transportation a monthly report, under oath, of all collisions, derailments, or other accidents resulting in death or injury to any person or damage to equipment or roadbed, arising from the operation of such railroad. These reports shall state the nature and causes thereof and the circumstances connected therewith."
Because of this earlier and continuing requirement, an agreement was reached between the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) that railroads should continue to report to DOT, but under modified recordkeeping rules. These new rules would conform to the extent practicable to those issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and would be administered by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) under 49 CFR Part 225. These new rules went into effect on January 1, 1975.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 also requires that the Secretary of Labor must issue rules to develop and maintain an effective program of collection, compilation, and analysis of occupational safety and health statistics. These data are used to chart the magnitude and nature of the occupational injury and illness problem across the country. Congress, OSHA, and safety and health policy makers in Federal, State and local governments use these statistics to make decisions concerning safety and health legislation, programs, and standards. Employers and employees use them to compare their own injury and illness experiences with the performance of other establishments within their industry and in other industries.
The injury and illness records required by FRA's accident/incident reporting rule contribute to the national database on workplace safety, maintained by DOL. In order to have a database that allows accurate comparison between industries, the rules that FRA uses must be modified whenever OSHA makes significant changes that affect the number and types of work related deaths, injuries, and illnesses for which records are to be maintained, and the manner in which these are be classified. Such a change occurred on January 1, 2002, when revised OSHA recordkeeping requirements became effective, and is the first revision since the original requirements were implemented in 1971.
Collisions, derailments, fires, explosions, acts of God, or other events involving the operation of railroad on-track equipment (standing or moving) and causing reportable damages greater than the reporting threshold for the year in which the accident/incident occurred must be reported.
Reportable damage includes labor costs and all other costs to repair or replace in kind damaged on-track equipment, signals, track, track structures, or roadbed. Reportable damage does not include the cost of clearing a wreck, damaged lading, or environmental cleanup costs, etc.
If the property of more than one railroad is involved in an accident/incident, the reporting threshold is calculated by including the damages suffered by all railroads involved. If the total exceeds the reporting threshold, a report is required even though an individual railroad's damages were below the threshold.
The accident report lists list those events that a railroad was involved in, regardless of whether or not that railroad's operations were the primary reason the accident occurred. This is done because all railroads are required to report the extent of their involvement in the accident, regardless of whether or not there is agreement as to the cause of the accident.
A form must be completed for each consist involved in an accident. The railroad responsible for the on-track equipment at the time of the accident, and only that railroad, will report the consist. In joint operations, if the railroad having track maintenance responsibility did not also have on-track rail equipment involved, a report containing the track information must be forwarded.
When multiple reports are provided in connection with a single event, they are grouped together.