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Apr 01, 2021

Washington, D.C. — Rep. Donald M. Payne, Jr. sent a letter today to Robert Sumwalk, Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), regarding uninvestigated railroad and hazardous material accidents in 2019.  As Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, Rep. Payne, Jr. wants to know what factors determine whether an accident is investigated and what prevents the board from conducting more accident investigations.

The letter asks the Board to inform Congress if staffing vacancies or other limited resources are the cause of these uninvestigated accidents and it was co-signed by Rep. Peter DeFazio, Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.   

“As you know, the NTSB is required by law to investigate and establish the facts, circumstances, and cause or probable cause of a railroad accident in which there is a fatality or substantial property damage,” stated Rep. Payne, Jr. in the letter.  “Despite this mandate, nearly 60 pages of the NTSB’s most recent annual report to Congress are dedicated to listing the railroad accidents that went uninvestigated in 2019, (such as) accidents that involved railroad employees struck by on-track equipment…, freight railroad accidents that involved derailments…, (and) passenger railroad accidents involving various impacts, derailments, and other events.”

The full letter is below.

April 1, 2021

 

Honorable Robert L. Sumwalt

Chairman

National Transportation Safety Board

490 L’Enfant Plaza, SW

Washington, DC 20594

 

Dear Chairman Sumwalt:

We share a firm commitment to improving the safety of all transportation modes, including freight and passenger rail. At a time when the freight rail industry continues to undergo major changes resulting from the implementation of the precision scheduled railroading model and the pre-pandemic demand for intercity passenger rail had reached new heights, we must remain vigilant in our work to identify and respond to safety challenges.

The railroads, workers, passengers, shippers, and countless others who rely on the safe transportation of people and goods by rail benefit from the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB or Board) investigations of railroad accidents. The expert recommendations that result from those investigations also inform the efforts that Congress and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) undertake to improve safety. Thus, your agency’s continued work as the premiere safety agency is integral to keeping communities safe.

As you know, the NTSB is required by law to investigate and establish the facts, circumstances, and cause or probable cause of a railroad accident in which there is a fatality or substantial property damage, or that involves a passenger train.[1] The NTSB is also required to investigate a selected highway-railroad grade crossing accident in cooperation with a state.

Despite this mandate, nearly 60 pages of the NTSB’s most recent annual report to Congress are dedicated to listing the railroad accidents that went uninvestigated in 2019. According to that report,[2] these include accidents that involved railroad employees struck by on-track equipment, caught between equipment, or experienced derailments; freight railroad accidents that involved derailments, obstruction and highway-rail impacts, and rear-end collisions; passenger railroad accidents involving various impacts, derailments, and other events; as well as railroad transit and a host of trespasser accidents.

Additionally, while the vast majority of the accidents that went uninvestigated were railroad events, an estimated 35 accidents involved pipelines, such as leaks, ruptures, and even home explosions, as well as hazardous materials, including releases and overturned or derailed vehicles. The vast majority of the explanations the NTSB provided to describe why it did not investigate these railroad, pipeline, and hazardous materials accidents was “limited resources.”

Congress recently reauthorized the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) pipeline safety programs, and we are undertaking efforts to improve railroad and hazardous materials safety. As we continue this work, we look to your agency’s renowned expertise and guidance. Given the important work your agency performs, ensuring it has the resources and tools necessary for carrying out its responsibilities is crucial to raising the bar on transportation safety. To better understand why so many accidents involving railroads, pipelines, and hazardous materials are not investigated, please provide answers to the following questions by May 1, 2021.

  • What is the process and basis for determining which railroad, pipeline, and hazardous materials accidents the NTSB investigates? How is this process impacted by the constraints of limited resources?
  • How many employees work in the Office of Railroad, Pipeline, and Hazardous Materials Investigations? Of these employees, how many are railroad accident investigators who work in the Railroad Division? How many are investigators in the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Division?
  • Are there vacancies in the Office of Railroad, Pipeline, and Hazardous Materials Investigations specifically for those positions that investigate railroad accidents? Are there vacancies for pipeline and hazardous materials accident investigators? If there are such vacancies, how many are there, how long have the vacancies existed, and when does the Board plan to fill them? Are there constraints to filling these vacancies?
  • If the agency needs to hire additional employees in the Office of Railroad, Pipeline, and Hazardous Materials Investigations beyond any vacancies that may currently exist, please identify the number of additional staff necessary to significantly increase the number of investigations. If applicable, please also indicate how such staff would help reduce the number of uninvestigated railroad, pipeline, and hazardous materials accidents, such as those detailed in the most recent annual report.
  • Given “limited resources” was the most common reason provided, is the Board facing budgetary constraints that limit its ability to meet its statutory mandate? If so, what budgetary resources are necessary to fill existing vacancies for investigators in the Office of Railroad, Pipeline, and Hazardous Materials Investigations? If necessary, what budgetary resources are needed to hire additional staff beyond filling vacancies? If other non-personnel resources are needed, please describe and quantify those needs and explain how they would help the NTSB meet its statutory mandate.
  • How long does it take for the NTSB to investigate a railroad, pipeline, or hazardous materials accident and issue a final report? How does that timeframe compare to the process for investigating and reporting on accidents in other modes?
  • Has the NTSB considered conducting a special investigation report about accidents that it has not investigated, including an assessment of trends that could benefit safety discussions occurring in Congress or at the FRA or PHMSA?

Thank you for your attention to this matter, and I look forward to continuing our work together to advance transportation safety.

                                                            Sincerely,