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Facing Myriad Threats, Rail Systems Juggle the ‘Business of Predicting and Preventing’

Lack of maintenance, cyberattacks, snakes, terror threats and sleep deprivation all pose unique risks to railroad safety.

When Patrick Levin was hired as Chief Security Officer in 2016, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) was beleaguered by a number of safety hazards due to a lack of maintenance, prompting efforts to identify causes and resolve them.

Analysts collected data on various dangers – such as fires, clogged pipes, water leakage, issues with track adjustment and railway staff not getting adequate sleep – to determine where preventive maintenance measures would be necessary.

Crews worked late at night between regular hours of operation in order to not interfere with the daily commute while maintenance was ongoing. Some lines were briefly shut down, but Levin said the end result of safer transit was crucial for the railway and its customers.

“Essentially what we did was three years’ worth of maintenance in one year,” said Levin, who spoke at the 2018 SafeRail Conference held Monday and Tuesday in Washington. “Really, what you want to get to at the end of the day is for the place to be safe and the customers are satisfied … We’re putting our money where our mouth is to show we’re serious about customer satisfaction.”

At the conference, executives and operations officials from across the U.S. presented their findings on how rail companies could increase the safety of customers while also improving business models.

In order to take transportation security to the next level, railway companies in the U.S. should model after the Federal Aviation Administration, said Jo Strang, senior vice president of safety and regulatory policy for the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association.

The strategy used at WMATA is similar to the Federal Railway Association’s (FRA) Positive Train Control program (PTC), which requires its 40 rail companies to submit data and certify their safety procedures in order to remain in operation. The system helps assess where assistance is needed to ensure safe transit, said Carolyn Hayward-Williams, staff director of the FRA’s signal and control division.

“In reality, PTC is never done, because it will continue to be a part of our system going forward,” Hayward-Williams said. “The goal is to gauge retention and response to errors. Having that communications backbone is a really huge step in the industry.”

L.A. Metro chief systems security and law enforcement officer Alex Wiggins said 79 percent of customers say they feel safe using rail in the U.S. But Wiggins questioned why that data did not reflect 100 percent, adding that his goal is for every customer to feel safe.

“We’re in the business of predicting and preventing,” Wiggins said, adding that his agency is seeking to implement the use of artificial intelligence software to help predict and interdict criminal activity or other possible risks to railway safety.

Aside from physical dangers, Wiggins said another issue of concern on railways and metro systems is sexual harassment. Homeless populations also pose a risk to safety, he added, saying that some homeless individuals use transit as a temporary shelter. That’s why he started a program involving 40 staff members, he said, to help raise public awareness of the issue and address it accordingly by contacting authorities or organizations that can offer assistance to individuals in need.

Rail companies are experimenting with secure messaging over private networks to increase rail safety. This allows operators to communicate more quickly without interference.

But the benefits don’t come without concerns. Among the potential issues that concern railway officials are limited bandwidth of networks and the threat of cyberattacks, making audits and evaluations more important to safety as technology evolves, said Amtrak senior engineering director Atousa Vali.

Another potential issue is snakes, which lay on rail tracks during the night to keep warm, said Doug Storer, CEO of Night Shift Shoe Lights. His company sells hands-free lighting products that can be fastened to maintenance workers’ shoes, which he said can minimize hazards while working because the shoe lights are less distracting than headlight lamps. Storer said the shoe lights could help crews more efficiently identify potential hazards along rail tracks, including snakes.

Sleep deprivation also poses a significant risk to railway safety, said Ken Glover, senior vice president of safety for Genesse & Wyoming. When operators are not properly rested, they might not respond as quickly or efficiently, which could lead to accidents on railways.

Each railway has its own unique approach to preventing accidents, said Dave Goeres, chief safety, security and technology officer of the Utah Transit Authority (UTA).

“When you’ve gone out to see one transit agency, you’ve seen one transit agency, because we’re all a little bit different,” Goeres said.

Brad Allen
Brad M. Allen is a young journalist from Janesville, Wisconsin. He is currently studying Political Journalism and Economics at George Mason University, and he has recently completed his eighth semester of college at UW-Whitewater, where he studies Journalism. He is slated to graduate from UW-Whitewater in December 2018. Brad has worked with two newspaper publications in the southern Wisconsin area, those being The Royal Purple student-run newspaper at UW-Whitewater and the Janesville Gazette daily newspaper. Thus far in his time at the Royal Purple, Brad has been a prominent member of the editorial team in several roles ranging from the Business section editor to Managing Editor. A fair portion of his reporting experience there has involved investigating federal policy and national issues and interviewing officials and economists in southern Wisconsin to boil those issues down to a local level. At the Janesville Gazette, Brad designs newspaper pages containing stories on various state, national and international issues. His job there involves reading and dissecting content written by organizations such as the Associated Press and Tribune News Services to choose which stories will be most relevant to readers in Janesville.

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