While track-caused rail accident numbers and rates have declined over the past 2 decades, defective track conditions are still among the most frequent causes of train derailments. The Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) Track Division deploys track inspectors and its Automated Track Inspection Program (ATIP) to determine whether railroads are complying with minimum safety requirements for railroad track. Given the impact of track conditions on railroad safety, we initiated this audit to evaluate FRA’s use of automated inspections to aid track safety oversight.
What We Found
FRA deploys eight ATIP inspection vehicles to monitor track conditions nationally and recently took actions to improve the program’s operation and oversight. However, the Agency’s formal program metric for ATIP vehicle utilization is outdated. Specifically, FRA contracts out operation of these vehicles to two contractors but only established a single utilization goal to run the ATIP vehicles 150 survey days a year. While some ATIP vehicles came close to the goal individually, collectively the ATIP fleet fell short, with an average 80-percent utilization between fiscal years 2016 and 2021. FRA officials offered several reasons, including weather events, to explain the missed goal. In addition, over half of the 539 ATIP-related inspection reports we reviewed contain inaccurate data—in part because FRA does not have sufficient guidance on recording ATIP-related inspection activities. FRA also relies on inspectors to respond promptly to changing conditions and use their territory knowledge in planning their work but does not have any national or formal district-level track inspection planning processes in place. However, FRA does use ATIP vehicles and survey data to perform data-driven evaluations of railroad track testing programs and improve its data inventories. Until FRA improves ATIP utilization goals and ATIP-related track inspection reporting, it cannot ensure its resources are optimally targeted to support the Agency’s track oversight.
FRA concurred with all six of our recommendations to improve its use of automated inspections to aid track safety oversight and provided appropriate actions and completion dates. We consider these recommendations resolved but open, pending completion of planned actions.
No. 1 to FRA
Update and implement Automated Track Inspection Program (ATIP) fleet utilization performance metric(s) and establish a process to monitor ATIP contractor performance.
No. 2 to FRA
Document the current ATIP survey prioritization process and establish a schedule for running the prioritization tool with updated data.
No. 3 to FRA
Revise the Track and Rail and Infrastructure Integrity Compliance Manual to include specific guidance for inspectors completing ATIP-related inspection reports.
No. 4 to FRA
Modify the programming logic of the Railroad Inspection System for Personal Computers so that the system will accept only correct ATIP-related inspection report entries.
No. 5 to FRA
Develop and implement training for Track Division specialists and inspectors on how to correctly prepare ATIP-related inspection reports.
No. 6 to FRA
Document and implement the track safety inspection planning processes, including guidance to district track specialists and inspectors on data sources that can be used to inform planning (e.g., risk assessment models, planning tools, and ATIP data).