Some of life's greatest lessons come when we learn from our mistakes, and in transportation, where safety is of paramount importance, that maxim is all the more true. That's the philosophy that brought about a unique collaborative project between the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and RITA's Volpe Center and Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). The Volpe Center/BTS team is involved in a major demonstration program for FRA designed so railroad employees can voluntarily and confidentially report "close call" events or unsafe conditions that could have resulted in an accident but did not.
The Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS) was created to analyze operational safety and develop methods and tools to help railroads better identify hazards and manage risk. The unique project approach teams the Volpe Center's expertise in human factors, human-systems integration, and program evaluation with BTS's expertise in data collection and analysis and an additional critical component—BTS' statutory authority to protect the confidentiality of information collected for statistical purposes.
Accidents occur when the barriers designed to protect the system fail. Often there are a series of preceding "close calls," which can act as warnings about the unsafe conditions. Information from close call reports can help identify safety hazards. Using this information, the carrier can develop corrective actions that prevent accidents. Studying "close calls" will help identify new and existing sources of risk, allowing an organization to develop corrective actions to prevent these sources of risk from turning into mishaps or minimize their consequences. This proactive approach enables transportation safety specialists to better manage risk, save lives, protect equipment, and preserve the environment.
This FRA sponsored program demonstrates the value of implementing a reporting system that encourages employees to disclose safety-critical information. The Volpe Center/BTS team is supporting FRA in the development, implementation, and evaluation of a first-of-its-kind confidential, voluntary system for reporting and analyzing close calls in the U.S. railroad industry—the Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS). It requires building trust with railroad employees to encourage them to voluntarily submit reports.
This system is being systematically implemented and evaluated. The Volpe Center's lessons learned team is collecting information about the system performance for the purpose of improving its effectiveness and documenting the outcome for the stakeholders.
The primary stakeholders in this effort are federal agencies, railroad carriers, and railroad labor organizations. One of the key challenges in moving the program forward involved building trust between stakeholders at the local and national level. Building trust empowers stakeholders to take ownership of the system and use it to develop and implement corrective actions that contribute to safer railroad operations.
The pilot for this program began at the nation's largest rail yard in North Platte, Nebraska, where Union Pacific employees began reporting "close calls" in February 2007. A second railroad—Canadian Pacific (CP)—began participating in April 2008. Approximately 2,500 Union Pacific employees and 350 Wisconsin-based Canadian Pacific employees can report "close call" incidents without fear of sanction or penalty from the railroad or the federal government. The FRA is actively working to solicit two additional railroads to participate in the demonstration project. In addition, the Bush Administration has requested $1.2 million in its proposed fiscal year 2009 budget to operate and expand this program.
Developing the system required close coordination between railroad labor representatives, railroad managers, FRA employees, and RITA staff. As of September 2008, over 1,000 close calls have been reported. The system is helping FRA to meet its goal of significantly improving operational safety and was identified as an important element in the DOT Secretary's Action List for 2007 and is also a key element in the National Rail Safety Action Plan.
For more information on this work, please contact Jordan Multer at the Volpe Center: Jordan.Multer@dot.gov, 617-494-2573.