From the chlorine used to purify drinking water to the chemicals used in fertilizers, railroads provide a safe solution for moving the hazardous materials (hazmat) essential to daily life. Railroads work daily with customers, suppliers, communities and federal regulators — like the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — to safely and securely deliver the freight entrusted to them.
Railroads follow rigorous design standards for rail cars carrying hazmat, developed specialized first responder mobile apps, and worked with the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration to create software that determines the safest, most secure rail routes for hazmat. Coupled with the rail industry’s ongoing commitment to infrastructure investment, technology deployment and rigorous employee training, the hazmat accident rate is down 73% since 2000.
While freight rail is the safest way to move goods over land, and more than 99.9% of all hazmat moved by rail reaches its destination without a release caused by a train accident, recent derailments remind us that such incidents can profoundly affect a community. Freight rail is dedicated to protecting the health and safety of our workers, our communities and the environment. Class I railroads are taking immediate actions to further enhance rail safety, from installing more inspection technologies to training more first responders.
Investing to Improve Safety
There is a direct correlation between increased investment in the rail network and enhanced safety performance. Record spending — approximately $780 billion between 1980 and 2022 — help freight railroads make a safe network safer. Railroads invest more than 39 cents from every revenue dollar back between 1980 and 2022 into the rail network — making it one of the most capital-extensive industries. On average, freight railroads spend six times more on capital expenditures as a percentage of revenue than the average U.S. manufacturer.
Meeting Rigorous Inspection Standards
Railroads comply with federal regulations as well as industry-wide and railroad-specific operating procedures to ensure safe operations. Industry and railroad-specific procedures cover employee training, train speeds, inspections, rail yard practices and locomotive operation.
Federal regulations from various agencies, including the FRA and the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), dictate safety practices in areas such as placement of railcars carrying certain commodities in the train “consist,” hazmat routes, an inspection of equipment and track, speed restrictions and more. While federal regulations dictate the frequency of inspections, railroads often inspect their infrastructure with greater regularity than the federal government requires.
Using advanced technology, railroads routinely inspect track components, bridges and equipment to identify safety issues and proactively schedule maintenance before incidents occur. These technologies include using drones to inspect inaccessible areas, ultrasound technology to identify flaws within track and specialized monitors mounted along track that identify faulty or worn railcar components as a train pass by. Because the nation’s rail network is highly integrated with equipment often operating across the networks of multiple rail companies, railroads participate in industry-wide initiatives to gather and share data so potential problems with equipment can be identified quickly.
Training & Supporting First Responders
Freight railroads have a fundamental commitment to the safety of the communities they serve all across the country. Working with industry and government partners, railroads help train tens of thousands of emergency responders each year and actively collaborate with local officials on emergency response plans in the event of an incident. Emergency response agencies can, upon request, receive confidential information on the hazmat moving through their communities.
In an accident, train crews are equipped with detailed information about commodities on the train — also available through the industry’s AskRail mobile app — so first responders can effectively respond to the incident.