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Stricter Rail Safety Rules Proposed, One Faces Pushback by Railroads

Mary Kennedy
By  Mary Kennedy , DTN Basis Analyst
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Since the Ohio rail derailment, federal and state governments have been introducing new safety rules along with new initiatives by the Federal Railroad Administration. (Photo courtesy of USDOT FRA)

The Railway Safety Act of 2023 was recently introduced by a group of Republican and Democratic Senators on top of the Federal Railroad Administration announcing a national initiative for focused inspections on routes that carry high-hazard flammable trains. The White House has also urged Congress to increase fines levied on railroads for safety violations.

There are many people jumping on board to add new rail safety rules and higher fines and overall greater accountability of the U.S. railroads. The fact that it took a major environmental disaster, negatively affecting the lives of so many people in East Palestine, Ohio, is tragic.

"It shouldn't take a massive railroad disaster for elected officials to put partisanship aside and work together for the people we serve -- not corporations like Norfolk Southern (NS)," said Ohio Senator Brown. "Rail lobbyists have fought for years to protect their profits at the expense of communities like East Palestine and Steubenville and Sandusky. These commonsense bipartisan safety measures will finally hold big railroad companies accountable, make our railroads and the towns along them safer, and prevent future tragedies, so no community has to suffer like East Palestine again."

On March 2, President Biden released a statement saying, "I applaud the bipartisan group of senators for proposing rail safety legislation that provides many of the solutions that my administration has been calling for. This legislation provides us with tools to hold companies accountable to prevent terrible tragedies like the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine and to make those communities whole."…


In 2015, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) published a "Notice of Safety Advisory." The intention was "to make recommendations to enhance the mechanical safety of the cars in trains transporting large quantities of flammable liquids. This Safety Advisory recommends that railroads use highly qualified individuals to conduct the brake and mechanical inspections and recommends a reduction to the impact threshold levels the industry currently uses for wayside detectors that measure wheel impacts to ensure the wheel integrity of tank cars in those trains," noted the advisory.

Union Pacific, on their website, says that "Railroads frequently inspect wheels, rail cars and tracks to keep operations running safely and smoothly. Technology is making this process even safer and more precise, while playing an important role in preventing derailments. The ultrasonic wheel defect detector uses ultrasound technology to inspect the wheels on a moving train. Each year, this system checks more than 80,000 wheel sets and helps uncover wheel defects that otherwise would have gone undetected."

Most of the larger railroads use defect detectors to scan passing trains for hot bearings. The wayside defect detector, or hot bearing detector (HBD), transmits a critical audible alarm message instructing the crew to slow and stop the train to inspect a hot axle. While this technology was in place on the Norfolk Southern Fort Indiana where the derailment took place, by the time the temperature exceeded NS alarm thresholds (above ambient temperature) and criteria for bearings it was too late, noted the NTSB in their Feb. 23 preliminary report on the Ohio derailment. reported that, at a Feb 23 news conference, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy, said the board's investigation will put wayside detectors under a microscope. "Investigators will look into the spacing of detectors, whether they are or should be monitored in real-time from a central data center, and the temperature thresholds each railroad uses to trigger an alert that would require trains with defects to stop."


Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) National President, Eddie Hall, in a statement on the BLET website after the OHIO derailment, said, "We were very fortunate this time that there were three crew members on this train. They were able to respond to the emergency, uncouple the locomotives from the train cars and take other action. If this had been a train operated by one crew member it may have taken longer to react to the fire caused by the failure of the bearings, axles and other mechanical items. It's not unusual for things to go wrong on trains and sometimes many things. This is why it is important to have experienced engineers and conductors onboard. But, despite running even longer trains that routinely carry hazardous materials, railroad CEOs have pushed for having only one person on the train and to even use remotely-operated trains. This is a serious mistake."

Hall added, "In the absence of federal requirements, it's important to note that the railroads will continue to self-regulate. Norfolk Southern Railway freight train 32N that derailed in East Palestine was nearly two miles in length. On western railroads such as Union Pacific, where I was working as a locomotive engineer as recently as last year, trains are often three miles long. The railroads have opposed any government regulation on train length; they have sought waivers to eliminate having trained inspectors monitor rail cars, and they have pushed back on the Train Crew Staffing Rule."

Hall is referring to the July 28, 2022, FRA proposed rule requiring a minimum of two train crewmembers for over-the-road railroad operations. On Dec. 14, 2022, the FRA held an in-person hearing to give all interested parties a chance to testify in support of or against the proposed rule.

"The record is clear. There is no evidence that two-person crews are safer than one person crews," Michael Rush Senior Vice President, Safety and Operations Association of American Railroads (AAR) testified at the hearing. "We've had a lot of discussions about Positive Train Control (PTC), which of course is critical to the concept of operating a train with one person in the cab. PTC can eliminate the operational need for a conductor to perform onboard functions such as observing wayside signals, recording dispatching and dispatching orders. PTC monitors train location, speed and direction in real-time. And, if necessary, stops a train automatically if the engineer fails to take appropriate actions. That's what a conductor is operationally assigned to do in the locomotive cab. With respect to a locomotive cab, we are now at the point where it's clearly feasible to operate a train with one person in the cab safely."

The NTSB did report on Feb. 23 that "the positive train control system was enabled and operating at the time of the Ohio derailment."

"If the proposed rule is implemented, it will hobble our entire industry's ability to compete with trucks and limit our growth potential," testified Tom Schnautz, Vice President, Advanced Train Control, Norfolk Southern Corporation (NS). "At NS we think PTC makes it unnecessary for a conductor to perform traditional safety related functions from the locomotive. At NS, we think PTC, which we have deployed throughout the core of our network, is a solution that works well for our operations and safety culture.

"This proposed rule will be very consequential for NS and the entire industry and has the potential to do us real harm. The proposal erects absolute barriers to transitioning to a more flexible, more efficient, more truck competitive rail transportation system. The regulatory burdens created by this proposal will significantly affect our customers, the environment and our nation's highways. That would be a high price to pay, even for a rule with rail safety benefits," concluded Schnautz.

As of the last update, the FRA extended the NPRM comment period until Dec. 21, 2022, and at the time of this writing, no decision has been made to make the proposed rule into law. Here is the full transcript of all testimonies at the public hearing held Dec. 14, 2022, on FRA's Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Train Crew Size Safety Requirements:…

In a March 1 press release on the USDOT website, the USDOT said it continues to pursue several other safety-related actions, such as "advancing a rule requiring two-person train crew."

Railway Safety Act of 2023:…

AAR stance on two-person crew:…

Positive Train Control:…

NTSB Feb. 23 Preliminary Report:…

March 1 USDOT press release:…

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