A safety alert was issued this week after the discovery of tripwires by a Class I worker Aug. 19 stretching from rail spikes to a sign across the ballast near Harrisonville, Mo.

“The affixing of these wires – difficult to find even when looking for them, much less see while performing professional duties along the right-of-way – presents a substantial hazard for railroad workers,” the Railway Alert Network alert issued Aug. 22 stated.

View the full alert here. (PDF)

In anticipation of today’s House hearing on the U.S. supply chain, an “exclusive” pro-carrier piece in the Washington Examiner on freight crew size says that keeping two people on freight crews is making the problem worse, neglecting to mention the massive cuts in rail labor and workforce retention issues the carriers have created through Precision Scheduled Railroading that have contributed to the supply chain problem.

Read the article.

Amtrak’s financial situation and the freight rail industry’s continued use of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) practices were the focus of a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing Oct. 21.
Amtrak President and CEO William Flynn repeated his plea for almost $5 billion in emergency funding to help the nation’s passenger carrier weather the continued downturn in ridership caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The carrier has made drastic long-distance service cuts, going from daily to three trips per week on many routes. Furloughs for almost 2,000 Amtrak employees are scheduled to take effect in November.
“Virtually all of the CARES Act money has been spent,” Flynn told the committee. “These workforce adjustments are essential with current financial funding.”
A number of legislative actions, including the HEROES Act and the INVEST in America Act, while passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, have been stalled by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the GOP-controlled Senate. The emergency funding provided by such legislation would help the carrier rebound, Flynn said.
“Once the pandemic eases, Amtrak plans to grow,” he said.
A second panel featured a discussion of PSR.
Rudy Gordon, CEO of the National Grain and Feed Association, expressed concerns from a shipper perspective about the redeployment of furloughed railroad workers, saying that he fears delays in service and shipments on the part of rail carriers when the economy rebounds.
PSR has caused “a tipping point” at the expense of customer service, Gordon said, and said that if rail service erodes further at the expense of the carriers obtaining lower operating ratios (ORs) that the Surface Transportation Board should intervene.
Larry Willis, president of the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department (TTD), of which the SMART Transportation Division is a member, offered written testimony concerning PSR.
“Across the sector, the pandemic continues to wreak havoc, threatening both the health and livelihoods of employees,” Willis stated. “At the same time, freight railroads, at the insistence of Wall Street investors and hedge fund managers, have pursued operating practices that undermine basic tenets of rail safety, ask frontline workers to do more with less, and threaten the reliable and efficient customer service that should be the hallmark of this industry.”
The lone labor representative invited to testify in person was Dennis Pierce, president of the Teamsters Rail Conference.
Other industry stakeholders appearing were:

  • Paul Tuss, executive director, Bear Paw Developing Corporation and Member, Montana Economic Developers Association
  • Frank Chirumbole, vice president global supply chain, Olin Corporation on behalf of American Chemistry Council
  • Kent Fountain, chairman, National Cotton Council
  • Ian Jefferies, president and chief executive officer, Association of American Railroads

Watch the hearing by following this link.

In yet another example that elections have consequences, the Trump-appointed FRA administrator’s actions have potentially minimized both public and employee safety on the railroad.
In September 2019, after the State of Illinois enacted a law requiring that trains operated in Illinois be operated with a certified conductor and certified engineer, the Indiana Rail Road, which often operates with one-person crews over 250 miles of track in Illinois and Indiana, sued the Illinois Commerce Commission in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois Eastern Division.
Backed by the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA), the carrier challenged that newly signed state law.
In May 2019, just days after the Illinois Legislature had passed the law, Federal Railroad Administrator Ron Batory, who was appointed by Trump and confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate, withdrew a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on crew size and declared that any state law regarding crew size was preempted.
In the Indiana Rail Road lawsuit, the carrier and lobbying groups repeatedly referred to “the wisdom” of Batory’s declaration of federal preemption. The Trump appointee has followed up with other FRA choices such as safety waivers for railroads during the COVID-19 pandemic and refusing to issue an emergency order on faulty air brake components.
“Ron Batory’s notice withdrawal absolutely paved the way for the district court to rule,” SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy Ferguson said. “We must keep in mind, however, that this issue is not yet settled. A larger discussion in court remains ahead, as the judgment states.”
Indeed, the district court noted that the issue of validity of the FRA’s action, which was raised by SMART-TD and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, was not properly before it and as such, the action stood for the time being.
The court went on to note that those issues are currently pending before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals involving a challenge by the states of California, Washington and Nevada, along with SMART-TD and BLET, as to the FRA’s compliance with the required APA procedures and its ability to declare state law preempted.
Oral argument was heard in that case Monday, October 5, 2020. The court has taken the matter under advisement and will issue a decision hopefully in the near future.
“It is worth noting that if the Ninth Circuit later holds that the FRA Withdrawal Order is invalid, then the Illinois Commerce Commission may move to vacate the judgment,” the district court ruling stated regarding the Illinois case.
The Illinois Commerce Commission, which would have enforced the law, was joined by SMART-TD and the BLET in defending the two-person crew law.
The court’s ruling effectively voids enforcement of the law, which took effect in January.
Read the ruling.

SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy Ferguson has requested that the Federal Railroad Administration issue an emergency order to carriers that train car valves prone to leakage during cold temperatures be replaced and/or repaired immediately.
“The FRA and the AAR have known about this issue for too long and have done too little to address it in a timely fashion. The safety of the public and all railroaders should never be compromised for the sake of productivity,” he said. “Our organization will not tolerate such behavior, nor will it go unchecked.”

The DB-60 II control valve manufactured by New York Air Brake is shown in this image from the manufacturer’s website. This model uses the DB-10 as one of its components.
The malfunctioning main air brake control valves on cars prevent trains from going into emergency braking mode during cold weather.
The Association of American Railroads (AAR) has been aware of cold-weather operation issues for New York Air Brake valve model DB-10 since at least October 2013. It sent out a maintenance advisory to all members of an inspection and repair procedure at that time.
In a letter to FRA Administrator Ron Batory sent Dec. 20, President Ferguson expressed his strong disappointment that a known safety issue has not been addressed by the agency or the carriers for more than six years.
“It is unacceptable that the malfunctioning valves remain in service after the better part of a decade without proper oversight and enforcement,” Ferguson wrote. “It is equally unacceptable that the carriers, rather than fix the problem, issue stopgap remedies to solve what we have been informed is a basic issue of preventive maintenance that costs approximately $200 and as little as two hours to repair.
“It is our opinion that your agency has not done enough to ensure that the safety of rail workers and the public is protected by enforcing its own regulations.”
SMART-TD informed FRA of suspected valve failures in a letter that was sent to FRA’s Region 8 in February 2019 by Dakotas State Legislative Director Jim Chase. Former National Legislative Director John Risch followed up with a series of communications on the issue as well.
FRA advised SMART-TD that it is examining the issue and has made recommendations to carriers as to how to rectify the situation.
“I’m not real satisfied with what’s been done here,” Chase said, saying that a pair of FRA rules appear to not have been stringently enforced for six years.
It should be noted that the FRA rule §232.103(i) states:
“(i) All trains shall be equipped with an emergency application feature that produces an irretrievable stop, using a brake rate consistent with prevailing adhesion, train safety, and brake system thermal capacity. An emergency application shall be available at all times, and shall be initiated by an unintentional parting of the train line or loss of train brake communication.”
Also not being enforced, Chase said, is:
§232.105 General requirements for locomotives.
(a) The air brake equipment on a locomotive shall be in safe and suitable condition for service.

(g) When taking charge of a locomotive or locomotive consist, an engineer must know that the brakes are in operative condition.

New York Airbrake valve DB-10 was initially approved for a finite useful life by FRA. At the behest of carriers, who raised concerns about the cost of replacing these valves on thousands to tens of thousands of private cars, the valve’s use has been extended, with a number of the valves in service having components being used beyond their useful period.
Each affected train car has a single valve on it that consists of two chambers, one that supplies air for service brake application for the train and one that supplies air for an emergency brake application. Any failure of this valve could conceivably affect a train’s stopping power while it is in motion.
“There is an expected life span on these valves which is being exceeded, and this has led to valves not going into emergency,” Chase wrote in a memo to members last month, describing the suspected source of the malfunction.
Swapping out of the valves used to be a regular occurrence, according to a representative from the SMART Mechanical Department (SMART-MD).
“They used to change these valves along with all air components every eight years,” said Larry Holbert, a SMART-MD international representative.
Changing the service or emergency portion of the valve involves the removal of three bolts and replacing gaskets, Holbert said. But now, according to reports Holbert’s been getting from the field, this maintenance is done on a catch-as-catch-can basis, rather than as a preventive measure, and a leaky valve is a tricky malfunction to track down, he said. The lubricants used for the pistons in the valves dry up over time, and the gaskets also can become brittle, leading to air escaping.
“One of the main concerns is the valve will fail in the winter months. The car will be brought into the shop and pass an air test as the O-rings and seats have warmed up,” Holbert said.
SMART-TD members, who operate trains in cold-weather states, indicate that weather below 40 degrees F brings increased instances where these valves possibly fail. As a result, trains in an incident where cars have separated may not go into emergency. And, an emergency brake application by the crew during such an incident may fail because of insufficient air pressure.
In one instance, Chase said, a coal train broke in two near Dengate, N.D., and the detached cars rolled backward for miles because the rear of the train did not go into emergency mode. He said another incident in Hettinger, N.D., also involved a train splitting and cars rolling backward for a substantial distance after emergency mode failed.
Chase said he has experienced two occasions just this month in North Dakota where emergency capability has been lost on trains he has operated.
“The public and employees have the right to be safe,” Chase said. “I can think of nothing more important than having emergency capability.”
A local chairperson from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen recently reported Dec. 9 that a locomotive failed to go into emergency as well.
The malfunctioning valves, when discovered, are trucked out by carriers and taken to be rebuilt by Wabtec, a Pittsburgh, Pa.-based company, at an estimated cost of just over $180, Holbert said. Holbert estimates that if the necessary parts were in hand once a failing valve was identified, a properly equipped shop could service the valves in a half-hour or less with “minimal” time spent for carriers to swap the bad valves out.
“It’s frustrating to see this occurring. They used to do the preventative maintenance,” Holbert said.
To SMART-TD leadership’s knowledge, carriers operating in cold weather have not issued any warnings about potential valve failures. With the coming onset of winter, the potential for failures could become more prevalent.
Chase said that carriers have been reluctant to allow valves to be tested, because of potential delays to their ability to serve customers, given that there are possibly tens of thousands of private cars equipped with the DB-10 valves that could fail.
In-cab personnel are advised:

  • Evidence of the symptom begins with increased brake pipe air flow from the controlling (lead) locomotive after a brake application has been initiated. Increased head-end air flow is caused by leakage from the bottom cover exhaust port of the DB-10 service portion on the brake control valve.
  • When the air is set during an air test, if air is heard leaking out of the bottom of the valve, it is defective. If the person at the controls of the locomotive notes excessive air flow during application of the train brake, pay particular attention to an audible blow of air coming from the vent of any DB-10 service portion that may be in the consist.

A workaround that has been advocated by carriers is not safe, Chase tells SMART-TD members.
“We have been instructed now to draw the train down to zero brake pipe pressure before we separate the train to set out a bad ordered car, thus circumventing the process by which we are able to determine if the train will make an emergency application should we actually need to do so after we leave the terminal,” he said in his alert memo.
“I cannot overstate how dangerous this new procedure is. The ability of the train to go into emergency is paramount.
“We didn’t initially realize the scope of this issue. We need to start documenting emergency brake failure incidents. It’s important that somebody other than the carrier is notified. Please contact your local SMART-TD safety leadership so that we can develop a database to document this issue,” Chase said.
Members should reach out to their state legislative directors, local legislative representative, or to the SMART-TD National Rail Safety Team to report safety concerns surrounding this issue and any others that may come up. These representatives are here to work for you and to help protect you on the job.

FRA_logo_words Latest safety statistics released by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in April confirmed 2014 was the safest year on record for freight train operations in the United States, according to the Association of American Railroads.

Highlights of FRA freight rail safety data (per million train miles):

  • Since 2000, the train accident rate is down 45 percent, a new low, and the 2014 train accident rate was down 7 percent compared with 2013.
  • The track-caused accident rate has dropped 54 percent since 2000 and 12 percent from 2013.
  • The equipment-caused accident rate has dropped 44 percent since 2000 and 6 percent from 2013. 
  • The rate for human factor-caused accidents has declined 44 percent since 2000 and 4 percent from 2013. 

“The freight rail industry is working all out to prevent any train incident, large or small. It is an ongoing 24/7 commitment and our goal remains zero accidents,” said Edward R. Hamberger, president and CEO of the AAR. “Freight railroads are always looking to further advance safety and will continue to move forward with safety-focused initiatives and cutting-edge research and development.” 

“The FRA statistics show that while freight railroads moved more products in 2014 than any time since 2007, the focus on safe train operations remained front and center through technological improvements, company-wide safety programs and ongoing record spending back into rail operations,” said Hamberger, who noted that since 1980, $575 billion has been spent on maintaining and modernizing the 140,000-mile rail system with $29 billion planned to be injected into rail infrastructure and equipment in 2015.

 

Latest safety statistics released by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in April confirmed 2014 was the safest year on record for freight train operations in the United States, according to the Association of American Railroads.
Highlights of FRA freight rail safety data (per million train miles):

  • Since 2000, the train accident rate is down 45 percent, a new low, and the 2014 train accident rate was down 7 percent compared with 2013.
  • The track-caused accident rate has dropped 54 percent since 2000 and 12 percent from 2013.
  • The equipment-caused accident rate has dropped 44 percent since 2000 and 6 percent from 2013.
  • The rate for human factor-caused accidents has declined 44 percent since 2000 and 4 percent from 2013.

“The freight rail industry is working all out to prevent any train incident, large or small. It is an ongoing 24/7 commitment and our goal remains zero accidents,” said Edward R. Hamberger, president and CEO of the AAR. “Freight railroads are always looking to further advance safety and will continue to move forward with safety-focused initiatives and cutting-edge research and development.”
“The FRA statistics show that while freight railroads moved more products in 2014 than any time since 2007, the focus on safe train operations remained front and center through technological improvements, company-wide safety programs and ongoing record spending back into rail operations,” said Hamberger, who noted that since 1980, $575 billion has been spent on maintaining and modernizing the 140,000-mile rail system with $29 billion planned to be injected into rail infrastructure and equipment in 2015.
 

U.S. freight railroads plan to spend an estimated $29 billion on the nation’s rail network, and project to hire about 15,000 people in 2015, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) reported Feb. 2 in its 2015 Outlook. These high-paying jobs, and record private spending will further strengthen an essential transportation system that is today powering a U.S. economic comeback.

“By providing affordable, efficient and reliable transportation of goods, from lumber to oil to auto parts and grain, freight railroads continue to play a vital role in the positive economic trends rippling through the U.S. economy – including rising gross domestic product, improving employment statistics and plummeting gasoline and heating prices,” said AAR President and CEO Edward R. Hamberger. 

The planned $29 billion in projected spending in 2015 – or approximately $79 million a day – brings the freight railroads’ private investments to $575 billion since 1980. The spending has covered upgraded track, new locomotives and freight cars needed to meet growing demand and make a safe network even safer. 

“Unlike most other transportation modes, freight railroads rely on their own funds, not taxpayer dollars, to build and maintain their networks,” Hamberger said. “The result of spending more than half-a-trillion dollars of private funds over the last couple of decades makes this country’s freight rail system the envy of the world.” 

The new rail hires, which an estimated 20 percent will be veterans, join the ranks of those with compensation, including benefits, among the highest of any industry, averaging $109,700 per year.

Sound public policy and today’s balanced economic regulations, Hamberger noted, make it possible to offer high-paying rail jobs and provide the affordable and efficient service American businesses need and expect if they are to compete in a global marketplace. 

“The rail industry’s ability to move more of what our economy needs rests on its ability to earn the capital necessary to continue record private investments, while supporting jobs across the country,” Hamberger said. “With the right federal policies in place, the world’s best rail network is on track to be even better.”

oil-train-railU.S. railroads are rallying customers, including lumber and steel companies, to fight a government proposal to slow trains hauling crude oil.

Urged by railroads, more than a dozen companies and business groups are warning regulators that cutting speeds to 40 mph from 50 mph would have a cascading effect, delaying other trains sharing the tracks carrying cargo such as furniture, grain and electronics.

Read the complete story at Transport Topics.

WASHINGTON — Two railroad industry trade groups have quietly asked the U.S. Department of Transportation to drop its requirement that rail carriers transporting large volumes of Bakken crude oil notify state emergency officials.

The railroads have maintained that they already provide communities with adequate information about hazardous materials shipments and that public release of the data could harm the industry from a security and business standpoint. But they haven’t been successful in convincing numerous states or the federal government.

Read the complete story at The Columbian.