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Applying a Proven Approach to Enhance Safety Culture in Passenger Rail

By Marlis McCollum

MITRE is translating our success in aviation safety to the passenger rail domain. We're helping rail and transit operators develop a positive safety culture—which is where it all starts.

Passenger rail operations across the nation are undergoing a safety upgrade as operators implement formal safety management system frameworks to meet Federal Transit Administration and Federal Railroad Administration requirements. In several of these efforts, MITRE is playing a critical role.

As the operator of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) federal R&D center, MITRE has a long history of helping the FAA and other aviation organizations, such as airlines, implement state-of-the-art safety management processes.

“We’re now applying our expertise to other modes of transportation, including road and rail,” says Tony Colavito, who oversees MITRE’s work in surface transportation.

Current recipients of MITRE’s expertise include both local and regional passenger rail operators, collectively serving hundreds of cities and millions of travelers.

“These organizations are committed to continually enhancing safety,” Colavito says. “They’ve partnered with MITRE to get an objective evaluation of their current practices and recommendations for improvements.”

Experience has taught us that a positive safety culture is foundational for all other safety efforts.

Dharm Guruswamy, principal systems engineer, safety management, and oversight modernization

How Does the Safety Culture Measure Up?

Our work begins with a comprehensive assessment of an organization’s safety culture, measured against the attributes of the gold standard, a “positive safety culture.”

“Positive safety culture is the sum of an organization’s shared actions and behaviors that demonstrate a strong commitment to safety relative to competing goals and demands,” such as maintaining market share or growing profits, explains Colavito. Experts look for safety-related indicators—a demonstrated leadership commitment, a responsibility for safety at all levels of the organization, a mechanism for employees to communicate their concerns, and opportunities for continuous training and learning.

“Experience has taught us that a positive safety culture is foundational for all other safety efforts,” adds Dharm Guruswamy, a project leader for MITRE’s rail transit work. “So, determining where an organization is on the safety culture spectrum is always the logical first step in our work.”

That process involves collecting data from all segments of the workforce via interviews with leadership, workforce surveys, and follow-up focus groups.

“The survey seeks insights on a variety of topics,” says Jodi Simco, Ph.D., the technical lead for MITRE’s rail safety culture projects. “For instance, do all employees understand their role in promoting safety? Are immediate supervisors responsive to any expressed concerns? Do leaders show appreciation for positive safety culture behaviors?”

Following the survey, MITRE’s experts hold focus groups to take a deeper dive into the issues that surface.

“The focus groups enable us to better understand the root causes of those issues,” Simco says. For instance, if operations crews observe that a damaged station platform has not been fixed in a timely manner, is the issue one of prioritizing maintenance work orders? Is additional training on the maintenance procedures needed? Or do the maintenance procedures themselves need an overhaul?

“By answering questions like these, we can better identify the corrective actions that are needed.”

MITRE’s Approach to Transforming Safety Culture

With those insights in hand, the MITRE team works with the organization’s leadership to identify and prioritize activities for strengthening the safety culture.

Improvements to an organization’s safety data analytics are often a key focus of our recommendations.

“To gain a comprehensive view of safety issues, an organization needs robust ways of collecting and analyzing its data,” Colavito explains. “In particular, the ability to fuse data from different sources is crucial. For example, a collection of employee reports about passenger abuse will provide greater insights if it can be tied to data about the locations of these incidents and their frequency, the time of day they occurred, and the staffing levels at any stations involved.”

Our experts also develop key performance indicators and metrics an organization can use to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of its improvement efforts over time.

“The metrics are designed to inform leaders’ planning, decisions, investments, and culture change efforts going forward,” Colavito says.

Safety Benefits Extend to Both Passengers and Employees

While our work with rail operators on their action plans is still underway, we ultimately expect their safety culture improvements to have far-reaching benefits.

“We’re working with these organizations on initiatives that will not only improve safety for the millions of passengers who use their services, but also the safety of their employees—from transit police officers to bus and train operators and the technicians who maintain the vehicles and rail lines,” Simco says.

“We’re also excited that this work is an opportunity to apply the attributes of our Next Level of Safety vision for the road and rail domains in specific, real-world environments,” adds Colavito.

“Our vision puts an emphasis on a positive safety culture, safety management systems, data analytics, and policies focused on safety outcomes. We’ve incorporated those focus areas into our work with passenger rail transportation providers—to help them continually improve safety in their own operations.”

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