Commentary

How Freight Rail Sets the Benchmark for Safety Standards, Performance

Written by Michael Rush
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Michael Rush. AAR photo.

Innovation and a strong culture are driving a safer future for freight rail.

Innovation is the key to making a safe railroad industry even safer. Innovation is not just technology; it is a clear-eyed, data-driven pursuit of continuous improvement in the safety of railroad operations. This persistent drive towards progress is embedded within the DNA of the railroads’ safety culture. Every element of railroad operations is centered around safety.

Technology deployed across the 140,000-mile network continues to support highly skilled rail employees and delivers results that will make railroads even safer in the years to come. Whether it is deploying high-speed cameras and lasers to spot defects or harnessing machine learning and advanced algorithms to identify emerging issues before they pose a risk, these advancements are designed to mitigate potential safety hazards and help railroads run more safely and efficiently than ever before.

Wayside sensor array on CN’s Halton Subdivision. William C. Vantuono photo.

A testament to the strong safety culture that equips employees with the training, information, and technology they need to maintain superior standards, Class I railroads achieved their best- ever employee safety record in 2023. This was no outlier either—it reflects the safest era ever for freight rail over the past two decades, as rail continues to be the safest way to transport goods over land.

Every railroader—from the C-suite to front-line employees—must accept the responsibility of maintaining a safe, efficient railroad. Instilling this charge starts on day one. Freight railroads train their employees using extensive classroom instruction, VR and simulator training, and hands-on training before exposing employees to real world operations. Safety is a daily priority—operating, maintenance-of-way, and various other craft employees begin their shifts with a briefing, giving employees updates on critical operational changes, potential hazards, and other critical updates so employees are able to successfully perform their responsibilities and return home safely.

When an incident occurs, railroads strive to learn what happened to prevent a recurrence. These lessons learned drive additional training, investments, and when necessary, changes to industry standards.

In 2023, Norfolk Southern trained 5,413 first responders through its Operation Awareness & Response (OAR) program. This included hands-on events across 15 cities with the company’s Safety Train. NS photo.

East Palestine is no exception. As new information emerged following the incident, railroads promptly acted to enhance safety measures and continue to do so today. Without waiting for regulators or lawmakers, railroads deployed hundreds of additional hot bearing detectors, established a more stringent threshold for stopping and inspecting cars, and implemented a new industry-wide trending analysis rule to detect problematic bearings. Railroads are doing more, and doing it faster, than agencies can mandate through the regulatory process.

Through the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the industry continues to raise its own standard of safety. AAR standards for safety performance often exceed the regulatory standards set by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and are frequently used by reference in DOT regulations.

Since last February, railroads have identified ways to enhance bottom valve protection standards for tank cars that help prevent fires and are working with hazmat shippers to implement changes. Additionally, the industry has scaled up first responder training efforts with more than 54,000 first responders collectively trained since 2023. Railroads have expanded access to AskRail® to more than 2.3 million first responders across the U.S. and Canada.

AskRail® app. International Association of Fire Chiefs photo.

Railroads will continue taking a leading role in enhancing rail safety—not because of a regulatory mandate but because it’s the right thing to do. While it is a business imperative that railroads maintain the highest safety standards, our strong safety culture makes it the utmost priority to protect our employees and communities. 

A true safety culture is reflected both in how we respond and the actions we take every day moving forward. Our pursuit of safety, combined with our dedication to innovation, ensures that how we operate today is better than yesterday and that tomorrow will be better than today.

Michael Rush is Senior Vice President – Safety and Operations at the Association of American Railroads.

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