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Posted at 4:22 PM ET, 01/31/2011

GAO: Rail safety data flawed

By Luke Rosiak

Information contained in the Federal Transit Administration's Rail Accident Database is inaccurate and flawed, the Government Accountability Office said today, leading to an understanding of the state of rail safety by top officials that doesn't match the facts on the ground. The database is a record of incidents injuring two or more people on subway, Amtrak and other rail systems.

The GAO set out to make observations about problems with rail safety. But instead, it found that the best data available had problems, making it impossible to draw conclusions--and that those relying on reports based on the data, such as the 2009 Rail Safety Statistics Report, were essentially operating in the dark.

Additionally, the GAO found that although FTA has taken steps to improve some specific problems with its data, it hasn't sufficiently addressed root causes to make sure informed analysis can be done in the future.

The FTA failed to implement a "sanity check" on its data when it was collected, the report said: "Unverified accident reporting may under or overstate accidents, injuries, fatalities, and property damage totals, among other things, depending on the nature of the discrepancy."

"For example, FTA's SSO Rail Accident Database lists 34 incidents occurring on January 1, 2003, for Maryland Transit Administration (MTA). FTA officials stated that these entries occurred because SSO agency data was collected and certified in aggregate (i.e., SSO agencies only provided summary accident totals) for the year."

Even information about lives lost in accidents similar to the 2009 Red Line crash was sometimes wrong.

"The SSO Rail Accident Database indicates that an accident occurred on the New York City Transit (NYCT) system on April 29, 2007. According to the database, there was one worker fatality, no other workers injured, and five passengers were injured. FTA officials stated that they verified the worker fatality and added the five injured passengers from the [National Transit Database] report of this accident. However, according to a NYCT senior official, there was in fact one worker killed, one worker injured, but no passengers reported injured in the accident. Thus FTA's SSO Rail Accident Database may not include one worker injured and may overstate five passenger injuries."

Some states didn't use unique tracking numbers to mark issues--meaning duplicate records could very easily seep in undetected, thus throwing off any totals.

"The lack of reliable data limits FTA's ability to produce accurate accident rates and trend information," the report said. "FTA officials acknowledged data inaccuracies and inconsistencies and have implemented changes to the data collection process over the past few years to address some of these issues. In addition, FTA is currently working to validate the SSO Rail Accident Database by conducting data comparisons with NTD and contacting rail transit agencies to identify and correct for discrepancies, as appropriate. However, the validation effort proposed by FTA to correct inaccuracies for previous years does not contain specific efforts to establish procedures that would improve data reporting in the future."

Good-government and accountability groups like the Sunlight Foundation have increasingly pushed the feds to make good use of electronic data analysis to operate more efficiently, to identify areas for improvement and to be open with the public. But government data--at least at the point which it is released to the public--is often dirty, incomplete or in a cumbersome format, and it's equally important that agencies not only provide data about their operations, but generate the records in a way that is accurate and precise.

By Luke Rosiak  | January 31, 2011; 4:22 PM ET
Categories:  Amtrak, Metro, Traffic Safety, Transportation News  
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