Train derailments in the United States fall under federal jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation’s Federal Railway Administration and, depending on the severity, the National Transportation Safety Board. These agencies have several levels of response, and the official finding on the cause of a derailment can take months.
The Federal Railway Administration (FRA) Office of Safety Accidents Analysis Branch monitors railroads full-time for any accidents or derailments. According to the FRA web site, FRA field personnel are “routinely dispatched to the scene of serious train accidents.” The field personnel may determine the cause of an accident, or decide a formal investigation is warranted.
In a formal investigation, a team of subject experts do a “methodical examination” of the incident. Investigations assigned from FRA headquarters are made only for significant railroad accidents that include certain highway-rail grade crossing collisions and “all railroad employee fatalities.”
Accident investigations by the FRA may take six to nine months to complete, and the agency states that “no portions of reports are made public until the investigation is reviewed, approved and finalized.”
Investigation to the Next Level
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), an independent agency separate from the Department of Transportation, investigates any railroad derailments or accidents involving passenger trains or freight train accidents that result in fatalities or significant property damage. Once the Safety Board decides to investigate, it becomes the lead agency by law. The FRA may perform a supporting role and continue its own investigation, but it won’t release a report until after the NTSB issues its findings.
When the NTSB investigates a major rail accident, it sends a go-team of investigators, on call 24 hours a day. The team is comprised of NTSB personnel trained in accident investigations. When a go-team is sent to a major accident, its members are the most publicly visible of investigators on scene. The NTSB says a team normally completes on-scene work in approximately seven to 10 days. The go-team’s investigation does not preclude emergency response from local and state agencies, which may conduct their own parallel investigations for law enforcement purposes. Yet the NTSB emphasizes that determining the probable cause of a major rail accident “is the responsibility solely of the Safety Board.”
The Safety Board also notes it was set up as an independent agency because “it often must investigate the role that the appropriate DOT agency may have played in causing the accident.”
In dealing with the press and public on the causes of a major derailment, the Safety Board will hold regular press briefings, and a board member may meet with the press in the days following an accident to brief them on progress. But the board’s policy is to release only factual information "without speculation."
Within six months after a significant rail accident or derailment, reports made by NTSB investigators usually available in a public docket at the Safety Board’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. The board’s staff analyzes findings from the investigators and makes recommendations on an accident’s probable cause. In a major investigation, a draft accident report is presented to the five-member Safety Board