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Despite many high-profile accidents in recent years, industry officials and others maintain that the nation's railroad system is continuing to become safer.

Over the past few years, railroads have particularly focused on reducing highway grade crossing accidents and on improving safety through education and training. Also, more railroads are considering and sometimes implementing anti-fatigue measures and positive train separation technology.

Accidents in which trains collide with vehicles or pedestrians have caused the most railroad-related fatalities for years; and in reports by the Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board, better employee training and alertness, as well as positive train separation technology, often have been identified as measures that could have prevented train-related accidents.

FRA statistics show that the number of railroad accidents and incidents of all types was 15,074 in 1996, the last year for which figures are available. That is the lowest number for this decade.

"In 1995 and 1996, there were a lot of large accidents" and losses, said Bridget Malone, New York-based assistant vp of underwriting in CNA E&S' railroad unit. "So, we did our own study to find out whether this would continue."

The CNA research found that the industry had developed an increased awareness of safety issues and reacted to accidents, Ms. Malone said. When accidents happen, "a lot of times, the industry or the FRA come out with new regulations or new technologies" to address safety issues, she said. "Given the number of railroads and trains in the country, this is a very safe industry," she said, referring to improving safety statistics.

The biggest industry safety gains came during the first half of the 1980s; since then, safety has improved, but not as significantly as it did during that time, said Robert Lauby, director of railroad safety at the NTSB in Washington.

Figures for major types of accidents, such as derailments and collisions, follow the same trend. But in recent years, the railroads have made progress particularly in reducing grade crossing accidents and those that involve employees.

1997 marked a low in at least six years in the total number of grade crossing accidents and incidents, according to the FRA. The 3,865 such accidents and incidents last year compares with 4,257 in 1996 and 4,633 in 1995. The numbers of fatalities and injuries are at a low for at least the past 20 year, the FRA statistics show.

"From a liability standpoint, grade crossing accidents are a big concern," said Ian Savage, assistant professor of economics and transportation at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

When it comes to grade crossing accidents, "railroads perpetually lose in the courts," though the state highway authorities are responsible for putting up warning devices, Mr. Savage said. He estimates that grade crossing accidents cost the railroad industry about $400 million to $500 million a year, the same amount he estimates the industry spends on trains colliding with other trains and derailment losses, which get more public attention.

Another area where railroads have continued to make progress in recent years is even costlier for them, according to Mr. Savage. Even though FRA statistics show employee casualty rates currently are less than half what they were in 1990, "settlements for employees for injuries, sickness and compensation amount to about $911 million" annually, he estimated.

Several railroad officials said they have been focusing on reducing grade crossing accidents for years.

"We have become very active in recent years" when it comes to grade crossings, said James McCloskey, assistant director safety-grade crossings at Norfolk, Va.-based Norfolk Southern Corp. Mr. McCloskey's position was established in December 1995 to strengthen the railroad's safety efforts. Grade crossing accidents at Norfolk Southern have decreased to 508 in

1997 from 826 in 1993, he said.

Like other railroads, Norfolk Southern has worked within Operation Lifesaver, a public information and education program founded in the 1970s to raise awareness of the dangers of grade crossings, and it has stepped up efforts to close grade crossings in cooperation with the states, according to Mr. McCloskey.

The states are responsible for equipping grade crossings with warning devices, which the railroads then must maintain.

"We have our grade crossing safety committees that inspect sites to see how we can make them safer," he said. "And we get this information to the states."

Omaha, Neb.-based Union Pacific Railroad also has come up with new ways to address the crossings problem. "We have helped train 2,500 police officers in the police academies" to make sure that law enforcement prevents accidents, said Steve Ken-yon, UP's general director of safety.

Two years ago, UP launched its Crossing Accident Reduction Enforcement program, which teams up railroad police with local police to ticket drivers for traffic violations at crossings and to gain media attention for the problem. The program has led to reductions of more than 50% in the numbers of incidents in the targeted areas, Mr. Kenyon said.

Employee training and motivation also has been a focus for the railroads in attempts to improve personal and operational safety. Railroad employee errors in judgment and other lapses, such as maintenance employees missing problems or employees falling asleep, are the second-leading cause of train accidents after track and signal defects, FRA statistics show.

"The real safety officers are our workers and our managers," said Bob Jones, assistant vp-claims at Rosemont,

Ill.-based Wisconsin Central Ltd. Over the past two years, the railroad has looked at all its training programs and reassessed its approach, he said. A training center was established, and the length of the initial training for employees was stretched to 12 weeks from two, he said.

Crew fatigue is an employee-related safety problem some railroads have started working on and others are looking at. "Currently, the biggest problem (in the industry) is crew fatigue," said Mr. Lauby of the NTSB.

Fort Worth, Texas-based Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. launched a Fatigue Countermeasure Program as part of its March 1996 Era of Safer Operations program, which was introduced after a train derailment at the Cajon Pass in California killed two employees early that year.

BNSF has since allowed train crews to take "opportunity naps" whenever a train stands still -- if it has to wait for another train to clear a track, for example -- provided one crew member stays awake, said Alan Lindsey, general director safety and rules. Naps are restricted to 45 minutes to avoid engineers' falling into deep sleep, which would cause dizziness after waking up, Mr. Lindsey said. BNSF also started making work times more predictable for employees, he said.

In the railroad industry, employees might be on call and called to work on short notice.

"If you want to improve safety, you must deal with this issue" of fatigue, said Dr. Mark Rosekind, president and chief scientist of Alertness Solutions, a Cupertino, Calif.-based consulting firm that this year helped UP start a four-year process to develop and gradually roll out an anti-fatigue program. UP's measures will combine education and training, new napping policies, a change in lodging environments, more predictable crew sched-uling and the confidential identification of people with sleep disorders, said Dr. Rosekind.

UP also established and filled the new position of director of alertness management late last year.

Sleepiness and other human factors can cause big accidents that could be prevented through technology. To avoid derailments and crashes, many railroads have been looking at positive train separation or positive train control, systems usually based on satellite and computer technology that bring a train to an automatic stop when its locomotive engineer fails to comply with speed limits or misses a signal or when two trains come too close. The NTSB has had PTC/PTS on its most-wanted list for railroad safety since 1990.

According to the Assn. of American Railroads, 11 PTC or PTS projects by all the major railroad companies are currently under way in different parts of the country to develop a reliable and economic system.

The railroads are spending millions on these projects, and organizations such as the FRA and AAR provide some money. Still, some railroad officials and experts have doubts that the safety benefits of the PTS or PTC technology will match the costs. Experts and safety officials said they expect that nationwide PTC or PTS introduction would cost billions.

Jeff Young, general director-advanced operating systems at UP, estimated a systemwide introduction for his company alone would cost about $500 million. "The safety benefits do not at all justify that cost," he said. While collisions and overspeed accidents caused by human error could be prevented, only "$30 million worth of accidents" would be prevented by this system and that amount would be saved only "in a bad year," he said.

Railroad officials said they think all these safety initiatives and programs are producing further improvements of their safety records. Nevertheless, the costs per million train miles for accident-related train, track and equipment repair have increased from $275,615 in 1994 to $329,586 in 1996, according to the FRA. Before that, the figures showed a downward trend.