Jo Strang is no stranger to passenger rail. She’s worked at various levels of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and was once the director of accident investigations for the National Transportation Safety Board. As the newly appointed associate administrator for safety at the FRA, it’s clear that the work done during Strang’s tenure will have a significant impact on public transportation agencies far and wide.
In January of this year, the FRA rolled out its National Rail Safety Action Plan. The plan emphasizes six categories for improvement — reducing human factor accidents, addressing operator fatigue, bolstering track safety, enhancing emergency response, improving compliance and enforcement of federal safety standards and upgrading safety at grade crossings.
In addition to these challenges, Strang is also heading up a testing program aimed at evaluating the benefits of crash energy management (CEM) technology and looking into further improving the rail industry’s accident prevention efforts. METRO Managing Editor Joey Campbell recently discussed these and other important issues with Strang.
In regards to safety, what is the FRA’s top priority right now?
Right now, our top priority is reducing accidents, but in specific it’s reducing human factor accidents. Human factor accidents are the largest category of accidents we have. This is one of the most difficult areas to tackle because it is not a piece of equipment that is responsible but a person who, for some reason, fails to do what they need to do. That could be because they were tired or because they didn’t have adequate training or they didn’t understand the rules or they didn’t have the right equipment. So it’s a tough area to make progress in.
How far along is the FRA in its Rail Safety Action Plan that it released in January?
We’re on schedule in most areas. If you look through it, a lot of it has to do with reducing human factor accidents. On the fatigue modeling effort, we should have a final report by August of this year. When we have the model validated, we will be able to get a much broader picture of what fatigue in the railroad industry looks like, and that will be very helpful in preventing fatigue-related accidents.
On track safety, which is our No. 2 priority — it’s true for most railroads that broken rails, derailments and track issues tend to be the second-leading cause of accidents — we are looking at a variety of improved inspection systems so we’re looking at ways to improve internal rail defect detection. We’re doing that jointly with the Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo, Colo. We’re using guided-wave technologies to look at internal rail defects, not only at the head of the rail, which is done by traditional ultrasonic means, but also at the web and the base of the rail.
Are these efforts a part of the same program that is testing CEM technology?
No. Our strategy is to prevent first; where we can’t prevent, mitigate; and if we can’t prevent or mitigate, try to have the best emergency response we can. The strategy is overall prevention. So if we can prevent broken rail derailments by introducing new technologies on positive train control and by working with railroads, then we can prevent collisions. But if we can’t prevent them, we want to mitigate the consequences. How we mitigate, in the case of passenger rail, is through CEM.
Can you tell me a little more about the CEM testing program?
We just conducted a test on March 23, and it showed that the CEM system as a whole worked beautifully, and everything performed as it was intended to perform. The test also included better seating and table arrangements, which will prevent injuries because they are a more friendly space to hit. They deform gracefully and take the impact off of the human body.
In traditional train collisions, often you will see the cabcar lift up off the tracks and override. The feature in a CEM system that prevents this is the deformable anticlimber. It keeps the body down so it doesn’t rise up, and it’s a component that can be added to existing equipment.
Then you have primary and secondary energy absorbers. In most accidents, the primary energy absorber is the cabcar itself, which is not desirable. In CEM-modified equipment, you have an integrated end frame at the end of the cabcar, and at the top half of the bottom of the car, there are two rigid posts. These have honeycomb aluminum and steel stoppers in them that act as the primary energy absorbers, taking a lot of the collision force.
The next thing you have is a way for the cars to stay upright and in line. In a typical crash you have buckling, and the car ends up in an accordion-like arrangement. What happens then is the accident, which may take place on a double- or triple-tracked train line with lots of service, could end up involving another train. If you keep the train upright and in line, which the couplers do in a CEM system, then you have improved safety because you are keeping the train in line. So even if there is an oncoming train, it’s not going to hit or damage anything.
How does the FRA plan to get more features of CEM technology onto trains, whether new equipment or retrofits?
We certainly have a lot of standards and regulations on passenger equipment, and we’ve recently revised our requirements for passenger equipment. What happened with Metrolink last summer is they asked for our help in developing a specification to use in their next railcar procurement. Metrolink really deserves credit for taking the lead here. They had a new procurement coming up and wanted to have every safety feature they could possibly have, and they did all this even before we conducted the CEM tests, which was a little risky. So we helped them design specifications, and we’ll help them make sure that the equipment meets all of our recommended standards.
Were the specifications the FRA designed put in front of the manufacturers during the bidding process so that they could develop a system that met them?
No. Actually, we formed an ad hoc working group with manufacturers, suppliers, Volpe Center staff, consultants and the two interested states, California and Florida, and we jointly developed a specification that would meet certain impact criteria so that we would have preserved occupant volume. It was really a joint effort and we accomplished it in about four months, which is fast by government standards. The bid closed, Rotem won the award and we are having our last meeting of that ad hoc group, where we are going to go over the test results, next week.
Some people in the industry think that rail operators are looking closer toward CEM and other passive safety features as opposed to high-tech preventive technologies. Can you comment on this?
I don’t know that that’s true. For one, our regulations governing positive train control systems — contained within 49 CFR part 236: subpart H — are relatively new. FRA has invested more than $49 million in the development of positive train control systems. We’ve required it for high-speed operations in the Northeast Corridor, and New Jersey Transit is expanding on that, too. We are involved in the North American Joint Positive Train Control Project, which is integral to the rail operating environment. We also have the incremental train control system in Michigan on Amtrak. I think what you are going to see is greater interest in both. People in the railroad industry tend not to adopt new things that quickly. They usually want to evaluate and see how they perform.