ASLRRA to USDOT: Allow Greater Use of Tech, Skip Crew-Size Mandates

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
ASLRRA President Chuck Baker

ASLRRA President Chuck Baker

The American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) is among those who have submitted comments on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s draft strategic framework.

Comments on the framework—which will guide USDOT’s work, including implementation of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, over the next five years—were due Dec. 17, 2021.

USDOT called on stakeholders as well as the public to review the plan (download below) and address five questions.

Following are highlights of answers provided by ASLRRA President Chuck Baker, who covered not only leveraging technology to improve safety, but also steering supply chain policy efforts with equity in mind.

1. What strategies or priorities should USDOT adopt to achieve the Department’s strategic goals and objectives?

ASLRRA’s Baker urged USDOT and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to issue rules that permit greater railroad operational flexibility. “This flexibility could help in further reducing greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining or improving safety—such as electronic airbrake slip (eABS) systems and automatic track inspection (AGTMS),” he reported.

Baker noted that FRA in January 2021 issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) to amend its brake safety system standards and permit eABS use “to safely move railcars further between air brake inspections and to permit railroads to add or remove multiple cars from a train without conducting additional brake tests.” The current redundant testing requirements, he explained, “hurt railroads’ ability to provide the efficient transportation options needed in today’s freight marketplace.” Baker encouraged FRA to finalize the rule.

Additionally, Baker urged FRA “to avoid actions that stifle advancements in track safety.” FRA previously granted waivers to many Class I railroads to “test the efficacy of ATGMS in lieu of the 50-year-old standard of visual track inspections,” he wrote. “ATGMS provides earlier identification of anomalies through more frequent inspections, more efficient inspections at much lower overall cost, and planned maintenance instead of reactive maintenance—all resulting in safer, better quality track. One of the features of the waiver that enhances network fluidity is a reduction in the number of hi-rail visual inspections, freeing track time for movement of trains. Railroads can shift the work of their track inspectors to other areas such as special trackwork and curves to maximize their effectiveness and improve the overall quality and safety of the track with these waivers.”

Baker noted that FRA recently denied extending the ATGMS waivers, and urged the agency to grant extension requests and initiate a rulemaking “allowing railroads to leverage technological advancements to improve rail safety and support supply chain fluidity.”

He also suggested “a position of ‘do no harm’ by focusing on grant programs and research. Controversial initiatives like a crew size mandate would shift focus away from programs that will make a positive impact on safety goals.”

2. How should DOT measure progress towards those priorities?

“Instead of focusing on priorities where there is no data to support a costly and limiting rulemaking such as crew size, supporting a robust data analytics program would be more conducive to meeting USDOT’s strategic goals,” Baker suggested.

3. What emerging challenges or opportunities in transportation warrant additional DOT activities or investments?

ASLRRA members are interested in creating dedicated funding for extreme weather events and other natural disasters—as has been done for other transportation modes, Baker wrote. The move, he said, would increase resilience in the supply chain.  

Baker also recommended “steering supply chain policy efforts with equity in mind,” pointing out that “USDOT is putting resources into replacing CMV [commercial motor vehicles] drivers with autonomous vehicles, while at the same time, working on efforts like a rule that would require a minimum of two people working on a locomotive.” He added that USDOT should avoid “dictating labor practices that have historically and successfully have been managed via labor negotiations.”

Baker requested that “FRA discontinue its efforts toward a new NPRM on Crew Size … as it is not supported by data or safety improvements, and is in direct opposition to actions taken in other transportation sectors related to labor. FRA has no data to support a minimum crew size mandate, especially as the agency has not implemented NTSB’s [National Transportation Safety Board] recommendations R-16-33 and R-16-34 to capture crewmember data and use the data to evaluate the adequacy of current crew size regulations.”

4. How can DOT best coordinate its activities with federal, state, local, tribal, labor, private sector, academic, non-profit, international and other partners?

Baker encouraged stakeholder engagement as USDOT implements strategic plan priorities. “Continuing participation in advisory groups is crucial to getting buy-in from industry, who will be responsible for implementing rules and regulations from the USDOT,” he pointed out.

5. How can DOT best utilize additional programs and authorities in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to accomplish the goals laid out in the strategic plan?

Baker asked the USDOT and FRA to support the grant programs created and continued through the enactment of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law). “Awarding grants to eligible short line project applications and freight-related applications through programs such as CRISI, Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) and Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) is an effective way for the administration to ensure our member railroads can make necessary upgrades to move increased freight volume and address … bottlenecks,” he explained.

Baker also offered suggestions on grant program administration. He noted, for example, that grants should be flexible in award size; matching funding requirements should be better defined; more transparency in the grant award process is necessary; the grant award process should be managed on a public schedule; and the processes after award announcements should be improved, such as speeding grant agreement execution and improving debriefings for unsuccessful applicants.

“ASLRRA encourages the Biden Administration to focus on policy levers that will encourage the movement of freight by rail as the biggest environmental ‘bang for the buck’ available in surface transportation and allow the short line industry to continue bringing new efficiencies to our country’s supply chain,” Baker summed up.

Download Baker’s comments here:

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