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.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    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

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Transportation (DOT) concurred with this recommendation. DOT said prior studies of fatigue and risk of human factors accidents have shown there is an elevated risk of human factors accidents due to fatigue. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the DOT entity responsible for rail safety, used these studies in crafting its August 2011 regulations establishing limitations on hours of service of train employees engaged in commuter and intercity passenger rail transportation. Those regulations limit the number of consecutive days on which an employee may initiate an on-duty period, with a more restrictive limitation applying to work performed during the nighttime hours. According to DOT, once all the provisions of the rules governing commuter and intercity passenger rail employees become fully effective (this was expected in April 2012), FRA may have an opportunity to compare the hours of service regulations governing passenger employees with those governing all other train employees (including freight railroad employees). According to FRA, although there are important differences between passenger and freight railroad operations, such a comparison may enable FRA to develop recommendations addressing fatigue-related hours of service issues involving consecutive days of work and work during nighttime hours for freight railroad employees. FRA plans to use this comparison, along with other information, to develop recommendations for how the hours of service limitations can be improved to reduce fatigue risk while mitigating possible negative effects on railroad employees and railroad operations in the freight railroad industry. DOT estimated the soonest FRA could begin formulating such recommendations would be the end of fiscal year 2014.

    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

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Transportation (DOT) concurred with this recommendation. According to DOT, the most significant barrier to the implementation of pilot programs suggested in the recommendation is the lack of interest from freight railroads and the lack of any federal requirement for railroads to develop and implement pilot programs. Since the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 became effective in October 2008, FRA has not received a petition from the railroad industry proposing to conduct either of the required pilot projects called for in the law. Due to this lack of interest, FRA has instead begun to develop plans for pilot projects that could be used to address fatigue issues in the freight railroad industry. DOT said the intent is to present pilot projects proposed by FRA to freight railroads and labor unions and work on implementing them. Should railroads and labor unions agree to conduct such pilot projects and FRA grants applicable waivers of hours of service requirements to facilitate this, then an analysis of safety data will be performed to determine their effectiveness. If FRA determines that the pilot projects have had a positive impact on safety, FRA will then (1) encourage railroads to incorporate similar arrangements at other locations that are at-risk of fatigue and (2) use information gained from the pilot projects to inform its process for allocating inspection resources. Per DOT, the earliest this portion of the recommendation could be completed is the end of fiscal year 2014. With regard to existing waivers of compliance with hours of service requirements, DOT noted such waivers are approved for 2 year periods at which time they must be renewed. In order to be renewed, the safety implications of the waiver must be determined. In addition, as part of the renewal process, FRA would be able to evaluate the benefits and costs of applying the combination of additional restrictions on work during nighttime hours and a less restrictive consecutive-days limit to train employees more generally. The first renewals of waivers is expected in 2013.

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