Michael Flanigon: Investigating train accidents


(National Transportation Safety Board)
August 26

Michael Flanigon says his life has been preoccupied by train wrecks.

As a railroad investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Flanigon oversees the teams that go to the scene of train and rail transit accidents, and the investigations and analyses that lead to safety recommendations.

“My job is to try to establish some order after a chaotic event and allow our technical experts to form into work teams and go out and gather the facts,” said Flanigon, a railroad accident investigator-in-charge.

Last week, he was on the scene of the crash in Hoxie, Ark., about 90 minutes northwest of Memphis, where a head-on collision between two freight trains left two crew members dead and two others injured.

Flanigon manages teams as they study tracks, signal systems, human performance, operations and the trains themselves, to reach conclusions about an accident. Investigators also look at survival factors, such as whether emergency responders were able to get to the scene, knew where to go and had proper training.

NTSB gets reports on about 20 accidents every day but, with only 10 investigators for the entire country, the agency doesn’t sends staff to every one. Certain factors make an accident a higher priority, such as if it involved a passenger train and there were fatalities, if NTSB already was looking into certain improvements or if something is a hot topic for the general public.

“Recently, there’s been a lot of interest and talk about the transportation of crude oil,” Flanigon said. “That might also be a factor that bumps something to the top of the list.”

NTSB’s primary mechanism for improving transportation safety is to issue recommendations. It has issued about 10,000 such recommendations and, although they are not mandatory, many subsequently have led to safety improvements.

Since 2010, Flanigon’s work on three different investigations—a collision of a coal train and an equipment train in Iowa, the collision of two freight trains in Minnesota and a derailment of a passenger train in Michigan—led to the NTSB issuing 26 new safety recommendations.

For example, Flanigon’s work on the Iowa collision led to a recommendation on improving the crashworthiness of locomotive cabs.

Flanigon currently is working a special report pulling together investigations of five individual accidents on the Metro-North Railroad in the Northeast.

“He’s doing a phenomenal job,” said NTSB’s Georgetta Gregory, the chief of the Railroad Division. “He really has a good way with people. He can get them organized to work as a team, be firm when he needs to be and get the project over the finish line.”

At any crash site Flanigon investigates, one of his first jobs is to set up a meeting with local officials, police, firefighters and other emergency personnel, along with NTSB’s investigators and Federal Railroad Administration officials. Sometimes representatives from unions or equipment manufacturers attend.

The meeting might be at a nearby hotel’s meeting room, a fire house or a community center, and it will be the first time people are all brought together, although they might have met on-site.

Participants share what they know and the group determines the activities of the next 24 hours. Typically, they gather facts, set up interviews and equipment inspections, and determine documents they need for the investigation.

“My job entails organizing the players as a team into an efficient fact-gathering machine,” said Flanigon.

“We will lay out what the plans are and then go forward and do what we need to do.”

The first day presents its share of challenges. “You parachute in somewhere in the middle of the country with a lot of strangers and you’re meeting people for the first time,” he said. Some people might have already stayed up long hours on the first day. The appearance of the media adds stress to the situation.

“Everyone is feeling a lot of pressure and maybe they haven’t had as much sleep as is ideal,” he said. “But it’s satisfying when it works, and it almost always works well.”

Other challenges arise months down the road when Flanigon is completing the accident story to support recommendations submitted to NTSB’s five-member board of presidential appointees—all of whom have technical backgrounds.

By then, NTSB investigators are mixed and matched on other accidents and dealing with different priorities.

Flanigon has spent his entire career in railroading. Early on, he was a conductor and a locomotive engineer, often working at night and on holidays. But the hours of that job were less appealing after he got married and had a family.

“You’re always on call,” he said. “If you don’t work, you don’t get paid.”

So he settled for his second favorite job: investigator.

“I love railroading,” he said. “It kind of gets in your blood.” Working as an investigator allows him to stay connected with his passion and also do rewarding work.

“My work makes a difference that I can see, and it helps improve public safety,” he said.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to the Fed Page of The Washington Post to read about other federal workers who are making a difference. To recommend a Federal Player of the Week, contact us at fedplayers@ourpublicservice.org.

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