FRA Updates Brake Safety Standards, Rail Equipment Accident/Incident Reporting

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has issued two final rules: one updating brake safety standards,the other revising the existing rail equipment accident/incident reporting regulation.

Brake Safety

For braking, the long-awaited final rule, 49 CFR Parts 218, 221, and 232: Miscellaneous Amendments to Brake System Safety Standards and Codification of Waivers, incorporates longstanding waivers for brake inspections, tests and equipment, while clarifying existing regulations and removing outdated provisions, according to FRA.

Specifically, it:

• Extends the amount of time freight rail equipment can be left off-air—parked with its air brake system depressurized—from four hours to up to 24 hours before requiring a new brake inspection. This new allowance, which has been in place in Canada since 2008, is expected to reduce the number of idling locomotives, according to FRA. The agency also estimates that the industry will perform 110,000 fewer Class I brake inspections annually and that the cost savings will be more than $500 million over the next decade. A Class III brake inspection when adding freight cars to trains is still required.

• Incorporates new technology to test brakes on each freight car. FRA permits two types of automated tests. According to the agency, “Cars tested with an automated single-car test device showed an 18% reduction in repeat freight car brake failures. Cars tested with the four-pressure method showed a 58% reduction in repeat freight car brake failures.” Due to these improvements, FRA has increased testing intervals for freight cars from one year to 24 or 48 months, depending on the automated test method used.

• Reduces the required height for end-of-train (EOT) marking device displays from 48 inches to 40 inches above the top of the rail. FRA says the change “will permit the manufacture and use of smaller and lighter EOT devices, making them easier and safer for rail workers to carry.”

The FRA issued its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in January. The NPRM was in response to the Association of American Railroads’ (AAR) request to “relax the requirement to conduct a Class I brake test prior to operation if a train is off-air for a period of more than four hours.”

“Incorporating technologies and safety practices, this final rule improves freight rail efficiency and will make our freight rail system competitive for the future,” FRA Administrator Ronald L. Batory said. “Issuing waivers permitting railroads to test these practices gave us an opportunity to verify the safety benefits. Modernization no longer has to happen by waiver; it’s permanent, and the economic impact to freight rail couldn’t come at a more pressing time. We’re confident that the changes outlined in this final rule will meet or exceed current safety standards while saving the industry money.”

AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies commented: “With this final rule, the FRA has modernized outdated, legacy regulations to keep pace with the industry’s ongoing tech transformation while maintaining uncompromising levels of safety. AAR applauds the FRA for this rulemaking process and its commitment to our shared safety goals.

“Advances in equipment and operating practices related to rail air brake systems have paved the way for a new approach to testing and inspection. In the place of time-intensive, redundant inspections, the new rule will provide environmental benefits and enhanced efficiency without compromising safety for both Class I and smaller railroads.

“Additionally, the FRA’s regulatory approach will allow for better harmonization across all North American rail operations by aligning practices more closely to those in Canada. Locomotive idling will be reduced by increasing the amount of time railcars can be off air, allowing railroads to further reduce emissions and fuel use, driving environmental benefits across the rail network. By reducing the need for locomotive idling during unnecessary inspections, there is potential to reduce emissions and drive environmental benefits across the rail network. FRA’s final rule also codifies certain existing railroad industry waivers that have proven to provide for the safety of railroad operations.”

Rail Equipment Accident/Incident Reporting

FRA has also issued a final rule, Revision of Method for Calculating Monetary Threshold for Reporting Rail Equipment Accidents/Incidents, revising the rail equipment accident/incident reporting regulation in an aim to improve accuracy. The rule, 49 CFR 225, takes effect Jan. 8, 2021.

“FRA has longstanding regulatory requirements whereby railroads must submit reports on all accidents and incidents resulting in damages exceeding an annually adjusted monetary threshold applicable to the calendar year,” according to the agency.

“In issuing the Final Rule, FRA is revising the method for calculating that monetary threshold by modifying the way it calculates periodic adjustments to it, and the way it communicates such updates to railroads to increase transparency. FRA expects to receive more accurate and consistent train accident data, permitting more rigorous analysis, and identification of railroad safety trends.”

FRA is:

• Revising “the percentage term used to determine a change in equipment costs, so it is consistent with the percentage term used to determine a change in labor costs.”

• Revising “the formula to use full-year data instead of only second-quarter data to calculate the reporting threshold” to better reflect overall economic data trends.

• Publishing “an annual notice on its website stating the reporting threshold for the upcoming calendar year” no later than Nov. 30 of each year.

FRA noted that the final rule “may require railroads to report slightly more accidents and incidents in any given year.”

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