FRA Announces New Hazmat Safety Initiative (Updated)

Written by Carolina Worrell, Senior Editor
FRA Administrator Amit Bose speaks about national rail safety initiatives at a FEMA-led press briefing.

FRA Administrator Amit Bose speaks about national rail safety initiatives at a FEMA-led press briefing.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) on March 1 announced a national initiative for focused inspections on routes that carry high-hazard flammable trains (HHFTs) and other trains carrying large volumes of hazardous material (hazmat) commodities.

The FRA said it will work with the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to identify these routes, beginning in East Palestine, Ohio, where a Norfolk Southern (NS) freight train carrying hazmat derailed on Feb. 3, and prioritize them for inspection, beginning immediately.

According to the FRA, inspectors will use a combination of human visual inspections and technology to “assess the overall condition of rail infrastructure, as well as railroads’ compliance with FRA regulatory requirements governing track.” Information, the agency says, will be shared with railroads, as well as labor organizations and will be periodically published for the public to “increase transparency.”

FRA’s Automated Track Inspection Program (ATIP) inspection vehicles, which are paired with human inspections, surveyed approximately 180,000 miles of track last year and help remediate around 10,000 track safety defects annually, according to the agency.

This kick-off, the FRA says, makes good on one of the key USDOT actions to “ensure freight rail accountability and improve safety following the NS derailment.” In addition to the initiative launched in East Palestine, USDOT says it “continues to pursue several other safety-related actions,” including:

  • “Targeting legacy tank cars–especially those carrying hazmat–for inspections and safety reviews.
  • “Deploying resources made available by President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to upgrade and modernize rail infrastructure and to make safety improvements over the long-term.
  • “Evaluating [reinstating an abandoned proposed rule] that would require electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes on HHFTs and other trains transporting large quantities of hazardous materials.
  • “Advancing [an abandoned proposed rule] requiring two-person train crews.“

The USDOT on Dec. 4, 2017 repealed a 2015 FRA rulemaking requiring freight railroads to employ ECP brakes on certain trains hauling hazardous flammable commodities such as ethanol and crude oil in DOT-117 tank cars. Also in 2017, FRA dropped a two-person crew NPRM, but revived it last year. Many industry observers believe FRA’s current moves are politically motivated.

Additionally, USDOT this week called on Class I railroads to take part in FRA’s Confidential Close Call Reporting System, and FRA issued a Safety Advisory (download below) to all railroads on hot bearing wayside detectors. There is a brief reference to temperature trending analysis, which the industry is in the process of adopting: “Review current HBD detector thresholds in light of recent derailments, and all the relevant available data (including data from any close calls or near misses), to determine the adequacy of the railroad’s current thresholds. Thresholds should be established for single measurement as well as multiple measurements of individual bearings to enable temperature trend analysis.”

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