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Rail Transport Emergencies and Their Management Research Paper


Transport Security Administration, Federal Railroad Administration, and Federal Emergency Management Agencies are institutions that are critically important when it comes to responding to emergencies in rail services. Although these three agencies have different mandates, their efficiency and effectiveness can be significantly improved if they can coordinate their activities. Their current capacity to manage and mitigate emergencies in rail services is fair. Some issues still need to be addressed to improve their efficiency when it comes to managing and mitigating emergencies in rail services.



Rail transport is one of the main modes of transport in the United States used by over 29 million passengers daily (Bullock, Haddow, & Coppola, 2012b). According to a report by Sylves (2015), the government of the United States has been investing heavily in improving its railway transport system to ease traffic on the roads. The country currently has one of the most modern railway systems that facilitate the fast and efficient movement of passengers and goods from one part of the country to another.

The construction of the United States high-speed rail promoted the popularity of rail transport in the country, especially in the major cities where a traffic jam is becoming common during rush hours. Most of the trains currently in use are modern coaches, which enhances the comfort of the passengers in case one is making a long trip. The cost of using the train is low compared with other modes of transport, making it very popular among the lower middle class and the poor in this country. Despite these massive developments witnessed in the rail transport sector in this country, one issue is still a major cause of concern to the stakeholders. It is still not clear whether the existing agencies responsible for managing rail transport and disaster response agencies are capable of managing and mitigating emergencies in Rail Services.

Recent terror events in this country show that most of the terrorists often target the transport sector, especially where they can get the masses. Trains can be one of their primary targets. The world has witnessed cases where terrorists target high-speed trains as a way of causing mass murder. Other non-terror related incidences may also arise such as major accidents that may have a devastating impact on passengers, crew, or goods on transit. The responsible agencies need to work very closely to respond to incidents and emergencies that may arise in the rail service. According to Haddow, Bullock, and Coppola (2014), since the September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda attack, both the federal and state governments have focused on tightening security in air transport.

Currently, the United States has one of the best safety and disaster response systems in air transport. However, little attention has been paid to safety and disaster management in the rail services. American society shouldn’t be reactionary when taking safety measures. The stakeholders should not wait for cases of emergency to take appropriate measures that can enhance security. This study seeks to determine whether the Transport Security Administration (TSA), Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are adequately prepared to respond to emergencies or mitigate the consequences of emergency incidents when it comes to assisting passenger rail services.

Main Project Goal and Supporting Objectives

According to Hamner, Stovall, Taha, and Brahimi (2015), the security and safety of passengers, crewmembers, and cargo should be of paramount importance to the authorities managing rail transport. The Federal Railroad Administration is responsible for all the administrative duties in rail transport. In cases of emergency, this authority directly relies on the support from Transport Security Administration. In case it is a major incident, then services of the Federal Emergency Management Agency may be needed. However, based on issues such as the budget allocated to these authorities, the training that their personnel has, and the attention that the federal government has given to the safety and security of the railroad services, it is questionable whether these agencies are capable of managing and mitigating emergencies in this field. The following is the main project goal for this study.

To determine the level of preparedness of TSA, FRA, and FEMA in responding to, managing, and mitigating emergency incidents when it comes to assisting passenger rail services.

The following are the supporting objectives that will be useful in defining the nature of primary and secondary data that will be collected.

  • What are the resources available for TSA, FRA, and FEMA that they can use to respond to rail service emergencies?
  • How well trained are the personnel of these three agencies in responding to passenger rail service emergencies?
  • What is the level of coordination of these three agencies that can enable them to work very closely in responding to emergencies?

The three supportive objectives above will help the researcher in responding to the primary project goal. The researcher will rely on both primary and secondary data sources to achieve the set objectives.

The Issue

A research project is meant to expand on the existing information to enrich a given body of knowledge. A researcher is expected to come up with new findings instead of duplicating the knowledge that already exists in the public domain. Reviewing the literature makes it possible to have an overview of the existing studies. It looks at what other scholars have found out in a given field so that a researcher can use it as a basis for the new research.

In this section, the researcher will conduct a review of the existing literature to understand the issue under investigation. These materials will help the researcher to understand what other scholars have found out about managing and mitigating emergency incidents when it comes to assisting passenger rail services in the United States. The knowledge gathered in this section will partly inform the conclusion and the recommendations that will be made.

On May 12, 2015, a passenger train derailed, causing a major accident in Philadelphia that left eight people dead and 200 other injured. It was not the first time that the country was witnessing a case of a railroad accident. Several railroad accidents have happened before, but this specific accident exposed major weaknesses in the ability of several responsible agencies to respond to the emergency as fast as would be expected of a developed economy.

In a report that was released by Nemeth (2016), the accident was entirely blamed on the train driver. The report went further to explain that the signal and braking system in America’s rail transport is very poor compared to that of many European countries. Most of the modern railway lines have an automatic braking system that can read the signals and respond immediately in case the driver delays to respond to cases of emergencies.

These new systems are also interactive, allowing the driver to understand any safety threats along the line. However, the system currently in use in the United States has not been updated for a very long time. The train drivers are forced to use their skills and experience to control the trains. This report raises major questions as to whether the Federal Railroad Administration has the relevant resources to respond to emergencies. If its system is as outdated as it currently is, what about the system available for disaster response. Another major issue that comes out is the level of preparedness of the personnel of FRA. If the driver was so careless that he derailed the train that caused the accident, how capable are other officers when it comes to responding to the emergency? If they are as inefficient as the train driver that caused the accident by ignoring standard policy requirements, then it means that this agency is inadequately prepared to handle emergency issues relating to assisting passenger rail services.

The Philadelphia railroad accident also raised questions about the preparedness of the Transport Security Administration. As Nemeth (2016) notes, the mandate of this agency goes beyond fighting terror threats and other forms of insecurities targeted at the instruments of transport in the country. The body is also responsible for vetting employees working in a sensitive area in the transport sector. Vetting is part of enhancing security because it helps in ensuring that the employees do not pose any threat to the public. It eliminates cases where extremists or incompetent people are hired in sensitive areas of transport where their decision may have serious security and safety threat to the public. TSA has been keen on vetting pilots flying planes that use American airports. However, Ulmer, Sellnow, and Seeger (2015) say that it has been doing very little in vetting train drivers hired by the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak). It is partly the reason why an incompetent driver was trusted with the lives of hundreds of people at a time when he caused the accident. It is an indication that the safety and security of passengers using rail transport are not given the necessary emphasis by this body.

Federal Emergency Management Agency is primarily concerned with responding to cases of emergency in the country. Hyndman and Hyndman (2016) say that “the purpose of FEMA is to coordinate the response to a disaster that has occurred in the United States and that overwhelms the resources of local and state authorities” (p. 12). Although FEMA did not play a significant role in the May 12, 2015 passenger train accident in Philadelphia, one cannot conclude that it lacks the capacity or willingness to respond to such emergencies. In a report by Devinsky, Schachter, and Pacia (2012), FEMA has a highly efficient team of skilled employees who can respond to various cases of emergencies in the country. The agency works under the Department of Homeland Security and its past performance shows that it has skilled human resources and capacity to respond to emergencies. However, the main concern is whether the agency has always considered rail service emergencies as one of the major areas where its services might be needed. It has been very active in enhancing the security of airlines and airports. If it can give the rail sector similar attention, then it can be easy to deal with emergencies in this sector.

Project Methodology

When conducting a research project, Skinner (2010) advises that it is important to come up with a clear method that will help in defining how data was collected and analyzed from relevant sources. The methodology section gives research validity. It enables users of this document to know how effective the research process was, and the extent to which, its recommendations can be applied. In this project, both primary and secondary sources of data were used to arrive at the conclusion and recommendations made in this paper. Secondary sources of data came from books, journal articles, and reliable online sources. They formed part of the literature review in the section above. Primary data was collected from individual respondents who were selected to take part in this study.


After collecting data from secondary sources, the researcher needed to collect data from the participants to help determine the current forces affecting this issue of emergency management and mitigation. To collect the needed data, the researcher had to identify specific individuals with the right information needed in this study. Employees of the mentioned agencies, employees of National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak), and passengers who have once been involved in an emergency while using the rail were the right people to talk to gather the needed information. Given that the researcher could not collect data from the entire population, sampling became necessary. The researcher used stratified sampling to identify specific people who participated in this study. Stratified sampling made it possible to select participants from the four organizations and from passengers who have been in an emergency in one way or the other while using the rail services in the country. It was also possible to classify the respondents in terms of the position they hold within their organization. This classification was important because some information could only be obtained from employees holding a specific position within the company.

Data Collection

Primary data collection was important in introducing new knowledge in this field. After sampling respondents, the researcher planned for the process of collecting data from them. A letter was written to the four organizations (TSA, FEMA, FRA, and Amtrak) to allow the researcher to interview some of their employees regarding safety and emergency response in the rail transport sector. The researcher explained that this was purely academic research and that third parties will not have access to the information collected. Amtrak officials also helped the researcher to locate some of the individuals who have been involved in incidents and accidents in the rail services. All the sampled respondents were given phone calls to inform them about the impending study and explain their role was in the research project. It was explained to them why it was important for them to help in gathering the needed data.

The interview was the best method of collecting data from the respondents. According to Kahan (2015), face-to-face interviews are always effective when collecting sensitive data where respondents may be tempted to hide the truth because of personal or organizational reasons. The researcher knew that some of the top officials or mid-level managers might be interested in hiding the truth. When conducting a face-to-face interview the researcher can read non-verbal cues that would make it possible to know when the respondent is not truthful. The researcher believed that the face-to-face interviewed enhanced the reliability of the data. It also enabled the researcher to probe the respondents further when their responses were not clear.

The instrument of Data Collection

Most of the respondents who agreed to take part in this project have a very tight schedule and such the researcher needed to be very organized and straight to the point when conducting the interview. The researcher developed questionnaires that were used in interviewing the respondents. The questionnaire was designed to capture the demographics of the respondents. Based on the category of the respondents, they were classified as top managers, mid-managers, non-managerial employees, and customers. This classification was necessary for capturing bias based on the respondent’s position within the firm. The researcher physically administered the questionnaire.

Data Analysis

After collecting primary data, the next important process was to analyze it to make informed conclusions and recommendations. Data was analyzed qualitatively. As Bullock, Haddow, and Coppola (2012a) say, qualitative data analysis uses phenomenology as a way of explaining events. The descriptive statistics made it possible to explain the current capacities of the four organizations. The open-ended questions allowed the respondents to explain their answers. It was easy for the respondents to explain the current capacities of the organizations where they are currently working. They were also able to explain some of the phenomena where their organizations responded to the emergency to help demonstrate their capabilities. The descriptive analysis was particularly important in explaining whether these organizations were capable of working as a unit, when necessary, to address an emergency in the rail transport sector. The approach made it possible to determine how well the institutions can respond to emergencies relating to passenger rail service within the country.

Ethical Consideration

Ethical issues are very important to factor in when involved in a research project. The researcher observed several ethical issues throughout this project. It was an ethical requirement for the researcher to get permission from the organizations that employ the participants in the study. That is why the researcher wrote a letter to these institutions requesting them to allow this study to be conducted in their institutions. The researcher also approached the sampled respondents and requested them to take part in the study. Only those who agreed to be part of this project were included. There were no conditions set for those who refused to participate in the study. Before collecting data, the researcher explained to the respondents the nature of the study and their role. The identity of the respondents was not revealed. Each of the respondents was assigned specific letters of alphabet chosen randomly.


The data collected from the respondents enabled the researcher to have an insight into how these firms conduct their activities, especially in cases of emergency. One factor that came out very clearly was that these four entities (TSA, FEMA, FRA, and Amtrak) operate independently although there are cases where their mandates may be related. It was also clear that although these entities appreciate the fact that there are cases when they may be forced to work alongside other agencies, especially when responding to an emergency, most of their strategic plans are often focused on how they can meet their goals and objectives individually. As such, the analysis focused on the level of preparedness of each of the institutions independently. The analysis primarily focused on TSA, FEMA, and FRA. Each of these three entities was analyzed independently because the data obtained indicated that it was not possible to look at these three entities as a unit.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)

Passenger train emergency preparedness is an issue that the management of FRA takes seriously following recent cases of terror attacks witnessed in parts of Europe and Asia. The information collected shows that the firm has policies that define how to respond to cases of the emergency. It has put structures to ensure that accidents and terror threats are eliminated as much as possible. However, it is still aware that despite the measures put in place to avoid such occurrence, cases of emergency can still arise, making it necessary for it to be prepared.

Safety of its passengers is entrenched in its mission statement that reads, “To enable the safe, reliable, and efficient movement of people and goods for a strong America, now and in the future.” The safety of the passengers comes first as one of its main mandates. Ensuring that passengers are safe partly involves coming up with effective passenger train emergency preparedness policies that can enhance fighting any threat that targets the passengers. Figure 1 below shows the guiding principles at FRA.

Guiding principles at FRA.
Figure 1: Guiding principles at FRA. Source (Murphy, 2013)

It is important to note that the safety of the passengers is one of the primary guiding principles at FRA. The other five principles have a role to place in enhancing the organizations’ preparedness to handle cases of emergency that may arise unexpectedly. It emphasizes integrity, accountability, and transparency. These are important principles in disaster management.

The government funds this organization and part of the resources are set aside to mitigate and manage emergencies. The interview conducted shows that the management of this firm highly values these three principles when managing its resources. The resources are always carefully planned to avoid cases of over-expenditure. Using the three as its guiding principles, this agency has been able to address some of the emergencies witnessed in the past such as the May 12, 2015, Philadelphia accident. The respondents stated that more lives would have been lost were it not for the immediate response from this agency and other state and federal forces.

Engagement is another guiding principle of this firm, which is also closely related to emergency mitigation and management. The firm believes in working closely with all its stakeholders and other relevant agencies to help it achieve its mandate. The willingness to engage other parties when undertaking its activities is critical in disaster management. This principle makes it easy for FRA to engage other parties such as FEMA and TSA when addressing cases of emergency. It also believes in engaging its employees actively in finding a solution to some of the emerging challenges in this industry. The employees understand the operational activities of the firm and are always able to coordinate closely when an emergency arises.

Innovation and excellence are the last two principles of this entity that can help it manage and mitigate emergencies relating to passenger train services. The management believes in excellence in the services that it offers to its citizens. The respondents noted that although the recent accident in Philadelphia that claimed the lives of eight people and injured 200 others was blamed on carelessness, the institution has always been keen on training its employees and assigning them responsibilities based on their capabilities. That was just an accident that cannot directly be blamed on FRA or Amtrak. Innovation has been useful in coming up with modern ways of managing modern threats. The firm has been taking its employees through rigorous training to enhance their ability to respond to cases of emergency using modern methods and tools. It was evident during the recent accident that this company is prepared to respond to emergencies in the most appropriate way possible.

Transport Security Authority (TSA)

This authority operates under the United States Department of Homeland Security has a primary mandate of enhancing the security and safety of the traveling public in the country (Wukich, 2015). One of the respondents noted that he was part of a recent study that investigated the authority’s preparedness for passenger rail emergencies in the country. TSA has a very effective system that can be used to manage emergencies in the air transport sector, but it has not given the proper focus on rail transport emergencies.

The spate of terror attacks that targets passenger rail services in Europe has demonstrated to the local authorities that rail emergencies’ preparedness is very important because it is not possible to know when such an attack may occur on the United States soil. Failure to plan for such emergencies may have a devastating impact in case of accidents or attacks by terror outfits. As an agency whose primary mandate is to protect the traveling public, emergency preparedness in the passenger rail services is critical. It must coordinate very closely with other security agencies and disaster management agencies to help it manage emergencies and security threats that affect passengers using rail transport.

One of the main issues that the respondents noted as being a major impediment to TSA’ preparedness for passenger rail emergencies is limited funding from the federal government. The respondents noted that the agency has always requested an increase in its budget but the federal government has turned down these requests. It forces it to spread its resources thinly to meet its objectives. The agency must always undertake numerous activities to thwart possible security threats posed by terrorists or criminals within the country. It becomes challenging to set funds aside for mitigation and management of possible threats, especially in rail transport that is seen to be under fewer threats compared with the airport and airlines. TSA will need more funding, as one of the respondents noted, to help it train its officers on emergency preparedness in the passenger rail services.


The primary function of FEMA is to coordinate disaster response within the United States in case the local and state authorities’ resources are overwhelmed. It has a team of highly efficient personnel trained to respond to emergencies, especially major accidents and cases of terror attacks. Since its foundation in 1978, it was on September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda attack that the real capacity of FEMA was tested. The agency has also been very reliable in addressing other cases of natural disasters such as hurricanes and major floods. However, its ability to coordinate rail service emergencies is yet to be tested. The respondents noted that the agency’s human resource has the training needed to enable it to deliver on its mandate. In 2016, this agency had a budget of about 14 billion United States dollars. The federal government has always been keen on funding this agency because it is not easy to determine when disaster may strike. The respondents noted that the agency is adequately prepared to respond to emergencies. It is in a better position to manage and mitigate major emergencies in the rail services, especially in cases of major terror attacks that target passenger trains.


The demand for passenger rail services in the United States has been on the rise over the recent past. Road transport is still very popular but many Americans are finding rail transport to be very convenient. It is estimated that about 29 million American residents use rail transport in a day. The fact that trains can carry hundreds of passengers in one trip makes it a major target of both local and international terrorists. It is also possible that there can be an accident such as the one that occurred on May 12, 2015, in Philadelphia. Any emergency in a passenger train may require an effective response and proper management by the relevant agencies.

These trains carry many people and when there is an emergency, immediate measures must be taken to reduce casualties. According to Drabek (2014), responding to cases of emergencies require trained personnel. The officers sent to address such issues must have the right training on how to handle the victims to ensure that they are not subjected to further injury. There should be no delay in providing emergency medication before the injured can be rushed to the hospital. The team must also have fully equipped ambulances that can take the victims to the hospitals after receiving basic first aid. In case of an attack by terrorists or criminals, the team must have the capacity to neutralize the threat before the rescue team can set in to help the injured. It means that managing and mitigating emergencies on rail services require resources.

TSA, FEMA, and FRA are the agencies whose mandates are directly related to managing and mitigating such emergencies. They have the resources and personnel that can help in coordinating emergency services. These agencies have distinct mandates. FRA is responsible for ensuring that the traveling public using rail services reach their destinations safely and in time. TSA is responsible for the general security of the moving public irrespective of the means of transport being used. FEMA is responsible for coordinating the emergency response in case the local and state resources are over-stretched.

The common denominator in their mandates is the need to ensure that the American residents are safe. When an emergency arises in the passenger rail services, these agencies may have to work as a unit. They may have to coordinate their activities to ensure that people are rescued from the emergency. As some of the respondents suggested, it may be necessary for these agencies to work closely when developing mitigation plans. Occasionally the three agencies may need to come together and discuss possible ways of responding to an emergency in the passenger rail services.

Policy Recommendations

The United States is one of the main targets of terror groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda. The fact that the passenger rail services have not come under a heavy attack is a clear indication that the government agencies are working tirelessly to thwart their efforts. However, it is important to appreciate that the sector may come under attack. As such, the following recommendations should be observed.

  • The federal government should consider increasing the budget of TSA, FEMA, and FRA to enable them to achieve their mandate.
  • TSA, FEMA, and FRA should closely coordinate their activities to prepare collectively for a possible emergency in the rail service.
  • The three agencies should invest in innovation to come up with modern ways of managing and mitigating emergencies.


Managing and mitigating emergencies in the rail service is very important as rail transport continues to be very relevant to millions of American residents. The security of these passengers when using rail services is a responsibility of TSA and FRA. In cases of a major emergency, FEMA is expected to join the three agencies in finding a way of reducing casualties by neutralizing the threat, rescuing the casualties, and organizing emergency medical treatment. Currently, TSA’s level of preparedness to manage and mitigate emergencies in rail services is not satisfactory. FEMA and FRA are better prepared for such emergencies that TSA. These three agencies should work closely in planning for such emergencies to be efficient and effective in their response.


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