PHMSA Eyes Rail Safety Rule to Aid First Responders in Hazmat Incidents (UPDATED Aug. 15)

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
PHMSA Deputy Administrator Tristan Brown

PHMSA Deputy Administrator Tristan Brown

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) on June 21 reported proposing a new rule that would require all railroads to “always maintain—and update in real-time—accurate, electronic information about rail hazmat shipments in a train consist that would be accessible to authorized emergency response personnel.” On Aug. 15, the government agency extended the comment period for that proposal.

Under the proposal—aimed at “improving public safety and preventing environmental impacts”—railroads must generate in hard copy and electronic versions, real-time train consist information for hazmat shipments that includes “the quantity and position of the shipment on the train, the shipment’s origin and destination, and a designated emergency point of contact at the railroad,” according to PHMSA. Railroads would also be required to proactively “push” that information to authorized local first response personnel as soon as the railroad is aware of an accident involving any hazardous materials.

The move, the federal agency said, responds to congressional mandates in the FAST Act; a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendation to provide electronic train consist information to emergency officials and personnel who respond to hazmat incidents for railroads; and “lessons learned” from firefighters responding to the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. “Consistent with the broad scope of the NTSB recommendation, PHMSA’s proposal goes beyond the FAST Act mandate that had been limited to Class I railroads and extends these new proposed requirements to all railroad classes and requires proactive notification to local first responders in the case of an accident or an incident involving a release or suspected release of a hazardous material,” according to PHMSA.

UPDATE: The proposed rule on June 27 was published in the Federal Register (download below). The deadline for comments was originally Aug. 28, 2023. On Aug. 15, PHMSA reported in the Federal Register that it was extending the deadline by an additional 60 days in response to a request for an extension submitted by the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA). Comments will now be due by Oct. 27, 2023.

“On-demand access to key information about hazmat shipments coupled with proactive information sharing will enable first responders to better prepare for the risks present at the scene of an incident before they arrive on scene,” PHMSA Deputy Administrator Tristan Brown said. “This will improve safety for firefighters and first responders, and the communities they so courageously serve.”

“Fire fighters are often first to show up at many emergencies, including train derailments and HazMat incidents,” International Association of Fire Fighters General President Edward A. Kelly said. “Accurate, up-to-date information about train contents is critical to keep first responders and the communities they serve safe. The IAFF strongly supports the Department of Transportation’s new rule that would give fire fighters real-time data allowing for safer responses. We applaud the DOT for prioritizing fire fighter and public safety.”

PHMSA and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) have recently taken additional actions to improve freight rail safety: making more than $25 million in funding available to help train first responders and strengthen safety programs; issuing safety advisories to railroads about replacing tank car covers; and “urging a faster transition” from DOT-111s to DOT 117s railcars, according to PHMSA.

In a related development, the Association of American Railroads in March reported teaming with the Sumner County, Tenn., emergency management agencies on a pilot project that adds AskRail data to their dispatching system. AskRail’s railcar contents information and emergency response guides will help to “ensure all first responders have accurate, timely information in the event of a rail emergency,” AAR said.

Launched in 2014, the AskRail app is a collaborative effort among the emergency response community and all Class I railroads (BNSF, Canadian Pacific Kansas City, CN, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific). Currently, it provides more than 35,000 first responders—from all 50 states and eight Canadian provinces—“with immediate access to accurate, timely data about what type of hazardous materials a railcar is carrying so they can make informed decisions on how to best respond to a rail incident,” according to Railinc, the app developer and a wholly owned AAR subsidiary.

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