While track-caused rail accident numbers and rates have declined over the past two 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, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) initiated an audit to evaluate FRA’s use of automated inspections to aid track safety oversight.
OIG found that 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 However, the watchdog also found that the Agency’s formal program metric for ATIP vehicle utilization is outdated.
Specifically, OIG said 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 OIG reviewed contain inaccurate data. The watchdog said this is 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 OIG found it does not have any national or formal district-level track inspection planning processes in place.
However, the audit determined that FRA does use ATIP vehicles and survey data to perform data-driven evaluations of railroad track testing programs and improve its data inventories.
FRA concurred with OIG’s recommendations to improve its use of automated inspections to aid track safety oversight. It also stated that it is formalizing ATIP fleet utilization metrics and contractor performance monitoring approaches for inclusion in future ATIP procurement actions and contracts.