The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has released a safety advisory recommending six actions that railroads take “to reduce weather-related accidents/incidents and improve the efficiency of the national rail network during severe weather events.”
According to the FRA, 123 rail accidents/incidents have been reported to the agency as “having been caused, in whole or in part, by severe weather conditions or weather-related events (e.g., hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, flooding, mudslides, and summer heat)” since the beginning of 2021, and more than half were main-track derailments (see chart below). Such extreme weather conditions and events “not only present hazards to railroad workers, operations and infrastructure, but also can severely impact the customers and communities relying on the railroads for travel and transportation of critical goods,” FRA said.
The FRA reported that it previously issued safety advisories concerning weather-related incidents in 1997 and 2012 and that MxV Rail earlier this year released a Technology Digest Article addressing some of the challenges the rail industry is experiencing with weather and heat-related track defects. However, in light of the continued occurrence of weather-related incidents, FRA said it is now recommending that railroads:
- “[E]valuate their communication and training programs, rules, policies, and procedures related to severe weather and ensure those programs are adequate to ensure weather-related action plans can be promptly implemented.” As part of this process, FRA said, railroads should make sure preparation and response training curriculums are up to date and include critical information necessary for operating personnel; simulated drills are performed to test employee response and recovery from severe weather events; employees receive sufficient training on weather monitoring software (including updated new training when software enhancements are introduced); policies and procedures for communicating weather events are adequate; backup communication and dispatching systems are present and tested regularly; and evacuation and safety plans are all-encompassing, to include railroad personnel working in the field and those in transit (e.g., on the rails, in yards, and traveling on roadways).
- “[E]valuate their weather forecasting policies and procedures.” In assessing their relevant policies and procedures, FRA said railroads should consider integrating weather forecasting policies and procedures—and the outcomes from those policies and procedures—into dispatch operations and incorporating those policies and procedures into Positive Train Control systems. Additionally, railroads should consider whether the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and United States Geological Survey (USGS) predicting and monitoring capabilities “are utilized adequately and consistently within those policies and procedures.”
- “[E]valuate their operating infrastructure to identify critical and geographical elements susceptible to severe weather events.” FRA said that railroads should identify operating infrastructure “sensitive to extreme weather events” and review plans and policies to “proactively and reactively” monitor that infrastructure. Issues to consider include: whether technology can be introduced to monitor critical infrastructure in real-time and how weather-related action plans can be revised to establish standardized interfaces with other railroads, agencies, and municipalities (e.g., United States Coast Guard and local and State authorities) in the event of a weather-related event. According to FRA, railroads should review and update these plans and policies periodically and ensure weather-related action plans address specific risks to the identified critical infrastructure.
- “[E]valuate existing weather-related action plans and ensure that those plans detail the necessary proactive planning, maintenance, communication, and other actions necessary to address the risks presented by severe weather conditions.” Railroads, as part of these action plans, should consider developing and implementing an auditing program for severe weather alert systems or other alternative methods to ensure that such systems remain in working condition, FRA noted. Additionally, railroads should ensure that such systems are tested routinely, and their functionality “is consistent with all current weather-related action plans.”
- “[E]stablish standard operating thresholds to ensure their weather-related action plans adequately prepare for severe weather events.” FRA reported that railroads should ensure that sufficient rules, policies, and procedures are implemented and periodically reviewed and updated “to enable effective determinations as to when it is safe to operate in extreme weather conditions and when it is not (considering environmental exposures for railroad personnel and other relevant factors).” The agency added that rules, policies and procedures should address weather events such as wind, heat, cold, flooding, flash flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes, fire, visibility, snow, ice, sand drifts, earthquakes, landslides, and environmental factors such as the air quality index.
- “[S]hould work together to develop best practices for utilizing weather forecasting technologies, predictive weather models, and weather-related action plans throughout the industry.” As part of this, railroads should consider how much deviation exists between railroads related to operational weather rules, policies and procedures, FRA said. They should consider whether those deviations “are justified and to what extent rail safety would benefit from industry-wide standardization of weather-related rules, policies, procedures, and weather-related action plans in general,” the agency noted. Additionally, railroads should consider whether individual railroad weather-related rules, policies and action plans include “adequate collaboration with tenant and interchange railroads.”