FRA to Review Class I Railroad Safety

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
FRA Administrator Amit Bose

FRA Administrator Amit Bose

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) over the next year will assess the safety of all Class I railroads.

FRA Administrator Amit Bose reported the agency’s intention in a June 1 letter to Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a copy of which was obtained by Railway Age. The assessments will be similar to FRA’s recent safety culture, practices and compliance review of Norfolk Southern (NS), which the agency on March 8 announced would be conducted following multiple incidents; that announcement came the same day the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported it would be conducting what it called a “special investigation of NS’s organization and safety culture,” and one day after the Class I announced a six-point plan to immediately enhance the safety of its operations. The initiatives were based on the NTSB’s preliminary findings on the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment.

According to Bose’s letter, FRA will issue a report summarizing its findings on NS “in the near future.” The agency will also publish reports on all other Class I’s as well as “an overarching final report assessing issues, trends, and commonalities across all railroads reviewed,” Bose wrote.

“Although FRA does not directly regulate a railroad’s safety culture, each assessment report will note the strong aspects of a railroad’s safety culture and recommend changes where there are opportunities for improvement,” Bose wrote. “Each Class I railroad will be asked to develop corrective actions in response to FRA’s recommendations, and FRA will track those to completion.”

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.)

Schumer sought the FRA assessments, according to a June 6 Reuters report. “Schumer’s office said the actions of the past few months ‘make it clear that the freight rail industry has perpetuated a culture of cost-cutting and shortcuts that has led to horrific damages in communities, injured workers, and even death,’” the news outlet said. “Schumer said the reports ‘will be a good first step to identifying the problems that persist in individual companies as well as what endemic problems permeate across the whole industry.’”

Schumer also asked FRA to analyze the effects of longer trains on safety, according to Bose’s letter. “As noted, in FRA’s recently published Safety Advisory 2023-03, research related to the operational aspects of long trains, including brake system performance, is ongoing, but recognizing the potential complexities associated with operating longer trains, FRA issued that Safety Advisory and a separate Safety Advisory (Safety Advisory 2023-02) related to train makeup and operational safety concerns generally,” Bose wrote in response. “In addition, Safety Advisory 2023-02 emphasizes specific concerns related to train makeup (including train length) and recommends that railroads follow certain best practices to ensure proactive measures are taken to address potential safety risks related to operating train builds with varying configurations (e.g., trains of varying lengths, load and empty placement, distributed power arrangements, and other factors). Safety Advisory 2023-03 focuses on longer trains in particular and recommends that railroads review their operating rules and existing locomotive engineer certification programs to address the potential operational complexities of train length, appropriate action is taken to prevent the loss of communications between end-of-train devices, and to mitigate the impacts of long trains on blocked crossings.

“Additionally, in response to mandates in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, FRA is currently studying the air brake system performance and resulting train dynamics of trains up to 200 cars in length and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is conducting a study of the impacts of trains longer than 7,500 feet. These studies are expected to be completed in 2024. In addition, on April 21, 2023, FRA published a notice of a special data collection effort in response to the mandate in IIJA Section 224213. FRA will collect the following information for a projected five-year period: (1) the length of the trains (in feet) involved in any FRA reportable accident, and (2) the number of crew members who were aboard a controlling locomotive involved in an accident at the time of such accident.

“With respect to the transportation of hazardous materials (hazmat) by rail, you asked how often such trains experience a derailment or other incident. Between 2013 and 2022, the percentage of derailments involving trains with at least one car of hazmat in the consist ranged from 23 percent to 28 percent; during that same time period, between 0.86 percent and 1.53 percent of reported derailments involved a hazmat release. FRA routinely inspects rail cars transporting hazmat, and when non-compliance is observed, enforces the Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR) governing the shipment and transportation of hazmat by rail. Moreover, FRA is currently engaged in a nationwide, comprehensive assessment of routes over which high-hazard flammable trains (HHFTs) are operated, as well as other routes over which large volumes of other types of hazmat are transported …

“Further, in April 2023, the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) voted to accept three new tasks designed to address the circumstances of recent derailments, including a task to consider revisions to the HMR to enhance rail safety by expanding the HHFT definition and modifying the operating requirements for HHFTs and other hazmat train configurations that may present elevated transportation risk …”

In Bose’s letter to Schumer, he also addressed the Senate Majority Leader’s query regarding “FRA guidance to railroads on Risk Reduction Program (RRP) implementation, as well as when FRA plans to begin auditing railroads’ compliance with their RRP plans.” Bose wrote that “FRA’s final RRP rule was published in 2020 and FRA subsequently conducted multiple training sessions for railroads and labor organizations representing many directly affected employees. During those training sessions which included sessions in August and November 2020, as well as February, March, and April 2021, FRA explained the requirements of the rule, outlined FRA’s expectations on the content of RRP plans, and described the expected approval process. Further, on October 12, 2022, FRA issued guidance on railroad/employee consultation requirements. As of Spring 2022, FRA has approved all Class I railroads’ RRP plans.

“FRA is currently working with the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association to draft an RRP plan template that could be used by Class II and Class III freight railroads found to have inadequate safety performance. Each railroad has three years from the date of FRA’s plan approval to fully implement its RRP program, meaning all Class I plans will be fully implemented before May 2025. Approved RRP plans include implementation plans with timelines and milestones. FRA plans to begin auditing RRP implementation plans in the first quarter of fiscal year 2024.”

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