C3RS Not as Clear-Cut as It Seems

Written by William C. Keppen, Jr.
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The horrific train derailment and release of hazardous materials in East Palestine, Ohio on Feb. 3, 2023 prompted a call from the US Department of Transportation for Class I railroads to join the FRA-run Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS) program. OK, but it ain’t that easy.

“Houston, we have a problem here,” an often-used quote from the Apollo 13 mission in 1970, is relevant as the industry and government investigates East Palestine and attempts to prevent similar incidents from occurring. This missive will focus on the call for Class I railroads to join the C3RS reporting system (emphasis on confidential), which some have already done, and all will likely follow.

As one of three original Rail Safety Advisors (RSAs) who helped to establish the FRA-sponsored and Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS)-run C3RS program, let me tell you about the challenges the original program faced and what happened when it transitioned to a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)-run program. What an expanded C3RS program would look like is yet to be determined, but expect to see variations among participating railroads.

Going forward, expect to meet these challenges, at the very least:

  • Real buy-in and commitment from some railroad management figures and some labor representatives.
  • Expenses, including the cost of engaging a third party to conduct interviews and write incident reports to be handle by members of Peer Review Teams (PRTs).
  • The composition and authorities delegated to a PRT.
  • Reaching consensus on whether any reporting employee could be held accountable for reported incidents.
  • What incident report collection should be conducted by NASA, or if that should be handled directly by participating railroads, individually.
  • If individual railroads handle their own incident reports, what should be passed on to NASA, so the industry at large may learn from what has been reported and what corrective actions have been implemented to prevent future occurrences.

To set the stage, I offer this citation from the C3RS Model MOU on the FRA website (download below):

“Key elements of the Close Call Reporting System:

  • “Focused on identifying impediments to railroad safety.
  • “Voluntary.
  • “Confidential.
  • “Provides participating employees with protection from discipline by the employer and decertification in specified reporting situations.”

Next, I would like to transition to views and remarks expressed by Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ian Jefferies, as documented in a March 3, 2023 article in Railway Age. I firmly believe the statements made by Jefferies represent the consensus of the Class I carriers that AAR represents, or he would not have made them. Those statements, I believe, also represent a roadmap for where, and how far, the Class I’s are willing to go. They do not consider where, and how far, labor is willing to go. Houston, we may have a problem.

Jefferies begins by expressing interest in streamlining the process to efficiently share high-quality safety information so railroads can react quickly. Who could argue with that? He goes on to identify specific areas in need of improvement, beginning with “quality of reporting.”

Noting a GAO report stating that NASA-processed reports often do not contain enough detail for railroads, Jefferies points to the need “to develop practical corrective actions.” He suggests that issue can be easily addressed by involving people who are “familiar with railroading.”

That issue was handled on the front end, when C3RS selected BTS to run the original program, and three Rail Safety Advisors (RSA), including me, were hired to review incoming C3RS reports and conduct interviews with those who were reporting incidents. That part of the process was virtually eliminated when C3RS was transferred to NASA. Look for an easy solution, hire an independent third party familiar with railroading, and conduct those interviews. Find out why the incident happened, not just what happened.

“Speed of reporting takes too long to reach the railroad.” This was never a problem when BTS was running the program. Interviews were conducted daily, as needed. Reports were written and reviewed by members of the RSA team, and individual railroad PRTs met on a monthly or as-needed basis to evaluate BTS C3RS reports and formulate corrective action recommendations. If speed and quality of information obtained are matters of concern, as they should be, this is one viable solution.

“Confidentiality” The big C. If Jefferies and the industry take a hard look at this matter, they will find out that FAA and NASA really do not have the same statutory authority as BTS has to protect data. We, the RSAs, warned FRA and participating railroads of that, when FRA was suggesting migrating C3RS from BTS to NASA, but the move went forward, nonetheless. This will likely be the most difficult issue that management and labor will have to address, as they attempt to establish their own C3RS reporting programs.

I would offer use of the existing NASA C3RS form to maintain uniformity, which could be processed on-property, including interviews and PRT reviews and recommendations, which could then be sent to NASA, in de-identified form for cataloging and publishing.

“Addressing repeated unsafe conduct.” Jefferies goes on to say that AAR “recognizes that protections are a necessary feature of the program” However, railroads feels these programs should “permit the railroad to address repeated misconduct with the employee.” Well, so much for confidentiality. Try selling that to labor, while attempting to establish your on-property C3RS reporting programs.

In concluding his remarks, Jefferies mentions an upcoming Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) meeting where these matters will be discussed. I would hate to see something as important as establishing viable C3RS programs tied up in lengthy RSAC deliberation and debate, which might also involve a working group, as often happens at RSAC. The basic functions and framework for C3RS programs were established long ago, and need not be changed.

To establish programs on individual railroads, management will have to identify and meet with the appropriate labor leaders, of the crafts they choose to involve in their programs. While working through the details needed to develop a mutually agreeable program, be mindful of the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding), Key Elements of the Close Call Reporting System. Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to recognize and embrace the very foundation of such agreements: mutual agreement. Without it, railroads will not be able to establish a C3RS reporting program, because the key and operative word for these programs is voluntary.

William C. Keppen Jr., a retired BLET (Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen) Vice President and third-generation locomotive engineer at BNSF and predecessors Chicago, Burlington & Quincy and Burlington Northern, is an independent transportation advocate with experience in fatigue countermeasures programs. A railroad industry veteran of almost 50 years, Keppen provides safety analyses for Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS) programs in freight, commuter, and light rail transportation. Keppen was Project Coordinator for BNSF’s Fatigue Countermeasures Program, and former BLE General Chairman for the BN Northlines GCA. “I started working on human-factor-caused train accidents in 1980,” he says. “It has been a struggle. I would like to think I have made a difference, but there are still far to many human-factor-caused train ‘accidents,’ which I prefer to refer to as ‘preventable incidents.’”

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