Rail unions seek greater federal oversight to make operations safer

Date: Monday, February 13, 2023
Source: FreightWaves

The fiery derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in Ohio on Feb. 3 has prompted some rail unions to press the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to increase its oversight of the freight railroads’ safety operations.

Since rank-and-file employees are the ones close to actual operations, one way to enable federal oversight is through requiring the seven Class I railroads to adopt the confidential close call reporting system, which would provide workers with a venue to anonymously report potential safety concerns, according to Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department (TDD) of the AFL-CIO.

Regan penned a letter dated Thursday to FRA Administrator Amit Bose, arguing for the railroads’ mandatory participation in the program. None of the seven major U.S. freight railroads use the program voluntarily, according to Regan, although some have said separately that they have internal systems that perform similar functions.

Regan argued that derailments per train mile and incidents at rail yards have increased significantly on several major railroads following the adoption of precision scheduled railroading, a method the Class I railroads deployed to streamline operations.

“With an eye toward creating a safer rail system, which has been top of mind after the hazardous train derailment in Ohio, we identified the FRA’s confidential close call reporting system as one commonsense solution,” Regan told FreightWaves on why TTD sent the letter.

“The program exists but is only used by about a dozen passenger railroads. We believe that making this a mandatory program, rather than voluntary, for Class I freight railroads will provide a necessary shield against retaliation so workers can provide valuable perspectives about any safety issues they see firsthand,” he said.

According to FRA, there were 1,049 train derailments during calendar year 2022, down 4% from calendar year 2021 and down nearly 20% from calendar 2013. However, during those time frames, the number of total train miles and yard switching miles also fell.

FRA data on train accidents. Derailments, collisions, fires/violent ruptures and explosions/detonations are all part of the train accident category. Highway-rail grade crossing collisions and trespass events are not included in this data. (Source: FRA)

FRA data provided to FreightWaves does not break down accidents by railroad company.

“If there is no meaningful change in the industry, we fear that these safety incidents will unfortunately keep happening,” Regan said in his letter.

‘Risky practices’ blamed as root cause of Ohio derailment

The concern that more incidents could occur in the future also came this week from Railroad Workers United (RWU), an interunion group consisting of craft employees.

As the National Transportation Safety Board continues its investigation into last Friday’s derailment, RWU said the “risky practices” that are part of railroad culture contributed to the accident.

Besides longer and heavier trains, “other hallmarks of modern day railroading include deep cuts to both maintenance and operating employees, poor customer service, deferred maintenance to rolling stock and infrastructure, long working hours and chronic fatigue, limited on-the-job training and high employee turnover,” RWU said in a Tuesday release.

The cause of the accident is still being determined by NTSB, although the federal investigators said Sunday that an overheated bearing could be a cause.

“What other such train wrecks await us remains to be seen. But given the modus operandi of the Class One rail carriers, we can no doubt expect future disasters of this nature.” RWU said.

According to a service update Thursday, NS (NYSE: NSC) has cleared mainline 2 of all cars and the line is ready for service. NS is still working on restoring service on mainline 1 at the site in East Palestine, Ohio.


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