Freight Railroad Safety:

Hours of Service Changes Have Increased Rest Time, but More Can Be Done to Address Fatigue Risks

GAO-11-853: Published: Sep 28, 2011. Publicly Released: Oct 28, 2011.

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The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA) overhauled requirements for how much time certain freight railroad workers can spend on the job (called "hours of service"). Changes included limiting the number of consecutive days on duty before rest is required, increasing minimum rest time from 8 to 10 hours, and requiring rest time to be undisturbed. RSIA also provided for pilot projects and waivers. RSIA's changes became effective for freight railroads in July 2009. GAO was asked to assess (1) the impact of these changes on covered train and engine (T&E) employees, including implications for fatigue, (2) the impact of the changes on the rail industry, and (3) actions the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has taken to oversee compliance with hours of service requirements and implement RSIA provisions for pilot projects and waivers. To perform this work, GAO analyzed covered employee work schedules and used models to assess fatigue, surveyed the railroad industry, analyzed FRA inspection and enforcement data, and interviewed federal and railroad officials as well as fatigue and sleep experts.

According to GAO's analysis of covered employee work schedules, RSIA's requirements led to changed work schedules, increased rest time, and reduced risk of fatigue for covered T&E employees. RSIA's consecutive work day limits and rest requirements contributed to work schedule changes and increases in rest time. Increased rest time also led to equivalent decreases in the hours that covered employees worked. Overall, GAO found, using an FRA-validated fatigue model, that the time covered employees spent working at a high risk of fatigue-- a level associated with reduced alertness and an increased risk of errors and accidents--decreased by about 29 percent for employees of class I railroads (those with the largest revenues) and by about 36 percent for employees of selected class II railroads (those with smaller revenues). GAO's analysis also shows that there are further opportunities to reduce fatigue risk. Specifically, RSIA's changes did not result in material decreases in night work, yet scientific literature and GAO's analysis show night work represents a major factor in fatigue risk. As might be expected from changes aimed at improving safety by reducing covered employee fatigue, the railroad industry reported that RSIA's hours of service changes had operational and administrative effects on it, some of which increased some railroads' one-time or ongoing costs. GAO did not determine how RSIA's changes affected railroads' earnings; but the act took effect as the economy was starting to recover from the recession that began in late 2008. Through its industry survey and interviews, GAO found that RSIA's changes affected railroad operations, including changes to crew and train schedules and increases in staffing levels. Railroad officials GAO spoke with attributed these changes to RSIA's consecutive work day limits and rest requirements, both of which acted to reduce people's availability to work. To maintain operations while complying with the law, railroad officials told GAO they, among other things, hired new employees or brought employees back from furlough. GAO estimated that adding people--120 to 500 each by some class I railroads--increased these railroads' annual costs by $11 million to $50 million. Administrative effects reported by railroads included a need for railroads to revise their hours of service timekeeping systems. FRA uses a risk-based approach to oversee compliance with hours of service and other safety requirements, analyzing inspection and accident data to help target inspections to activities where noncompliance is associated with a greater risk of accidents. GAO's analysis of inspection and enforcement data for the years before RSIA took effect and for the following year show it is too early to determine if FRA has changed the priority it assigns to overseeing hours of service requirements or if a change in priority is warranted. FRA has not been able to implement RSIA-required pilot projects because no railroads have chosen to participate. Nor has it approved voluntary pilot projects designed to test the fatigue-reduction potential of alternatives to RSIA requirements. FRA has approved petitions for waivers of compliance with hours of service requirements for some railroads, but is not required by RSIA to collect data on the safety effects of the approved alternatives. Data from pilot projects--if implemented-- and waivers could be used to improve FRA's assessment of fatigue issues. FRA should, among other things, assess the fatigue risk of work performed during night hours and develop data from pilot projects and waivers to help assess fatigue issues. The Department of Transportation raised concerns about findings related to the oversight process and provided additional clarifying information. Based in part on this additional information, GAO withdrew part of a recommendation. GAO also made other clarifications in the report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: As of October 2016, FRA said it is continuing to implement regulatory, safety promotion, and research activities to prevent fatigue among railroad workers in safety sensitive positions. For example, in July 2016 FRA issued the System Safety Plan final rule, which requires passenger railroads to implement a defined and measurable safety culture, identify and reduce operational safety hazards, and document how they will continue complying with FRA safety regulations. FRA said its upcoming Risk Reduction Program final rule will apply a similar regulatory approach to freight railroads. FRA is also developing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on fatigue management plans. Finally, in May 2016, FRA embarked on a research study to determine optimal work schedules that reduce fatigue and related human performance efforts for Maintenance of Way (MoW)employees. FRA believes that, while this research uses data from MoW employees--who work in shifts, including nighttime work, and irregular schedules that disrupt circadian rhythms--will provide insights about challenges to human performance. According to FRA, results from the study could support changes to safety standards regarding work and rest periods for railroad employees in safety sensitive positions. FRA's actions will undoubtedly benefit the railroad industry and fatigue management. However, they will not address potential fatigue to train and engine crews from working nighttime hours, which was the focus of our report. In addition, the System Safety Plans and Risk Reduction Program are broad rulemakings not specifically targeted to either train and engine crews or fatigue, and the MoW study will cover a class of employees (MoW) that may or may not have work schedules and working conditions similar to train and engine crews. Finally, it does not appear any of the FRA actions will examine the relationship between fatigue from working nighttime hours, the potential for accidents and incidents due to this fatigue, and mandatory work/rest requirements for train and engine crews as contained in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 and implemented through FRA rulemaking. For these reasons, FRA's actions are not responsive to GAO's recommendations.

    Recommendation: To ensure that FRA's implementation of hours of service requirements in the freight railroad industry maximizes opportunities to reduce the risks of accidents and incidents related to fatigue, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FRA to evaluate and develop recommendations about the relative impact of consecutive days worked and work performed during night hours on the potential for fatigue and risk of accidents in the freight railroad industry. This evaluation should attempt to determine if taking night work into consideration in the hours of service limitations (such as by requiring more rest after night work) would enable some relaxation of the current limits on consecutive days worked before rest is required in such a way that the same or better overall reduction in fatigue risk occurs while mitigating negative effects on employees and railroad operations. In performing this evaluation, FRA should consider scientific and medical research related to fatigue and fatigue abatement and data from pilot projects and waivers of compliance with hours of service requirements that relate to fatigue levels and consecutive days worked and work performed at night. FRA should also communicate the results of the evaluation to appropriate congressional committees for their consideration.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In response to GAO's recommendation, FRA initially provided an action plan stating that the agency would identify pilot projects to test the fatigue reduction potential of alternatives to current hours of service laws. However, on October 2, 2014, FRA provided GAO with information regarding FRA's effort to seek participants, and notified GAO that no railroad had been willing to participate in a pilot project. GAO reviewed the information and supporting documentation and determined that FRA had made a good faith effort to identify railroads to participate in pilot projects. GAO is in the process of closing this recommendation as implemented.

    Recommendation: To improve FRA's targeting of its inspection resources and understanding of the effect of work hours on fatigue, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FRA to work with the railroad industry to identify pilot projects that could be implemented to test the fatigue reduction potential of alternatives to the current hours of service laws. Also, collect safety indicator and accident and incident data from participants in pilot projects and railroads with waivers of compliance with hours of service requirements to determine the effects of such pilot projects and waivers on covered employee fatigue and participant safety performance. FRA should then incorporate the results of both efforts into the risk assessment process used to determine the allocation of inspection resources and report the results to appropriate committees of Congress.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation


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