Amtrak officials told federal investigators Wednesday that two recent fatal crashes had prompted an unprecedented focus on safety for the railroad.
The company said it has long had programs that encourage employees to report safety issues, had rules designed to protect workers and collected data to pinpoint weaknesses in its systems. But officials acknowledged there is room for improvement.
“The only way we’re going to get better is to change,” said Amtrak executive vice president and chief operating officer Scot Naparstek. “We are serious about safeguarding everyone who relies on us every day.”
Naparstek’s remarks came on the second day of investigatory hearings held by the National Transportation Safety Board, which is examining the circumstances of two crashes — the Dec. 18 derailment of an Amtrak train south of Seattle that killed three people and injured more than 100; and a Feb. 4 incident in which an Amtrak train crashed into a parked freight train in Cayce, S.C., leaving two people dead and 116 injured.
According to documents released by the NTSB as part of the hearing docket, human error was likely a factor in both crashes, but other factors such as lack of training also may have played a role.
NTSB officials are not expected to make a final determination about the cause of the crashes until next year, but information gathered from the two days of hearings at the agency’s D.C. headquarters is expected to aid in the investigation and in developing recommendations for preventing future calamities.
After a day of testimony Tuesday that focused on the two crashes, discussion Wednesday shifted to ways organizations can promote safer operations by adopting safety management systems. Witnesses included representatives from Amtrak, freight railroad giant BNSF Railway and European rail agencies.
The key to improving safety, executives said, is building a culture where employees feel free to speak up — and with more focus on prevention than blame.
Keith Atkinson, head of Britain’s Office of Rail and Road Railway Safety, said deliberate mistakes are rare. Rather, mistakes are often the result of misunderstanding or ignorance. A workplace that has a system in place to identify those gaps can make significant strides in improving safety.
In addition to railroad executives, NTSB officials also heard from representatives from the pipeline industry.
Shawn Lyon, vice president for operations for Marathon Pipe Line, said that just a few years ago, his industry was the focus of NTSB hearings following incidents in Washington state, California and Michigan.
In 2012, the NTSB recommended that the industry develop a safety management system. Lyon said the industry moved quickly to do so, and the shift in how the industry views safety has benefited everyone, he said.
Executives also said it is critical for leaders to understand that safety isn’t just about checking boxes.
“When you think you are done, that’s when you’ve failed,” said Massoud Tahamtani, senior policy adviser for the Virginia State Corporation Commission, who has worked on pipeline safety in the state. “Whether you are in the rail business or the pipeline business, you must go from a culture of compliance to a culture of safety.”
Amtrak officials said they have invested heavily in employee training and have worked closely with unions to develop a system they think will make rail travel safer than it’s ever been. A new system for tracking data will offer a more comprehensive overview of where the problems exist, giving officials a head start in addressing them.
Theresa Impastato, senior director for system safety at Amtrak, said data is the cornerstone of a safety management system — one that will enable the organization to transition from “reactive to proactive.”
NTSB members have often been frustrated that too many of the incidents they investigate are repeats of previous calamities, but on Wednesday, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt ended the hearing on a hopeful note: “I do believe that through this investigation and from the information gleaned through the last two days, we will be successful in improving safety for the benefit of us all.”