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Explainer: How Confidential Reporting Systems Work

Wednesday, December 04, 2013 - 05:52 PM

In the wake of Sunday's fatal Metro-North derailment, the federal government sent New York's MTA a strongly-worded letter requiring the transit agency to set up a confidential close call reporting system.

Here's the thinking. Crashes, like Sunday's fatal Metro-North derailment, are investigated. But safety hazards that could lead to crashes often aren't even reported. (Researchers call this the "incident iceberg.")

Since 2009, the federal government has been piloting a program called a "confidential close call reporting system." Based on an FAA program, it's designed to improve railroad safety by giving employees a way to anonymously report conditions that could lead to serious problems.

Earlier this year, Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo said "we see Confidential Close Call reporting as a tremendous opportunity to learn more about safety issues before accidents occur and work with railroads to improve safety cultures."

Here's how it works: workers call a hotline or make an online report about an incident -- something like a train that ignored a posted speed limit, or didn't comply with a signal. The Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics follows up to get more information, then "de-identifies" the individual. A peer review team investigates and looks for patterns, and then may recommend action.

Currently, New Jersey Transit is the only commuter rail line in the country to have a confidential close call reporting system. Amtrak, Union Pacific Railroad and the Canadian Pacific Railway are the other pilot participants.

According to NJ Transit presentations, based on calls to the reporting system the agency has made changes to railroad cab design and speed limit signage. (See a PDF here.)

New York's MTA says it's working on how to implement this system, and it will report its progress to the federal government by Friday.

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