March 16, 2023
Railroads will not rest until they meet their goal of zero accidents.
Thousands of well-trained, FRA-qualified inspectors constantly monitor and assess the health and safety of freight rail equipment along with the nearly 140,000 miles of tracks across the country. In addition to conducting FRA-required inspections, railroads have voluntarily invested in testing for decades, advocating for and implementing advanced inspection technology to supplement manual inspections.
Even though data show railroads are safe, the industry believes that the East Palestine derailment earlier this year, and its aftermath, require railroads and freight shippers alike to lead with actions that restore trust and will further improve freight rail safety.
Listed below are the voluntary actions AAR and Class I railroads are taking. Click to expand each action item to learn more.
Issuing a wheel safety advisory
Norfolk Southern identified loose wheels on a series of cars that presents an increased risk of an out-of-gage derailment. Through its committee structure, AAR took expeditious action and issued an advisory to stop cars with these wheels from use and interchange until those wheel sets can be replaced. “This is an uncommon defect to see in a wheelset that demanded urgent action,” AAR said. “This is a voluntary, proactive step aimed at ensuring equipment health and integrity.”
Adding 1,000 detectors and adjusting spacing
The industry has long recognized the risk posed by hot bearings and voluntarily installed thousands of hot bearing detectors (HBDs) across the railroad network. The railroads have also voluntarily installed acoustic bearing detectors, which can ascertain potential problems from the noise created by bearings that are starting to fail.
For more than three decades, Class I railroads have voluntarily spaced HBDs no more than 40 miles apart on key routes, which are routes over which commodities that are particularly hazardous travel. In recent years, all the Class I railroads have reduced their HBD spacing significantly below the 40-mile criterion.
All Class I railroads have now agreed to go further and are immediately installing additional HBDs across their key routes, with the goal of achieving average spacing of 15 miles, except if the route is equipped with acoustic bearing detection capability or other similar technology. This will amount to the deployment of approximately 1,000 new HBDs. A route containing acoustic bearing detection capability or other similar technology shall maintain maximum HBD spacing not to exceed 20 miles where practical due to terrain and operating conditions. Inoperative HBDs on key routes will generate critical incident tickets and be prioritized for dispatch and repair without undue delay.
Creating a new industry standard for heat thresholds
The Class I railroads commit to stopping trains and inspecting bearings whenever the temperature reading from a hot bearing detector exceeds 170° above ambient temperature. This action establishes a new industry standard for stopping trains and inspecting bearings.
Reviewing trending analysis programs
Analysis of trending data from multiple hot bearing detectors can reveal a bearing problem before an absolute temperature threshold is reached. While HBDs have been in use for a long time, relatively recent software and data processing have led to the ability to proactively identify bearings that have not yet exceeded absolute temperature thresholds but, based on findings of HBD-trending data, may become problematic and need to be addressed.
Each Class I railroad now uses trending analysis, but there are a variety of approaches employed by the Class I railroads to accomplish this goal. Class I railroads are reviewing the trending analyses programs each uses and are targeting March 31 to provide recommendations regarding the use of trending analyses.
Joining FRA’s Close Call Reporting System
As outlined in a recent letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), all seven Class I railroads are joining the FRA’s voluntary program to supplement their own programs for confidential reporting of safety issues.
Training more first responders
In 2023, the railroads will train roughly 20,000 first responders in local communities across the country on accident mitigation. In addition, the industry will facilitate the training of 2,000 first responders at its Security and Emergency Response Training Center (SERTC) facility in Colorado, which includes enhanced scenario planning and training at a new facility.
SERTC’s world-renowned program offers an immersive experience with full-scale training scenarios that prepare first responders for real-world surface transportation emergencies. SERTC is a member of the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium (NDPC), which fully funds local, state, tribal and territorial first responders to attend any of SERTC’s DHS/FEMA-certified courses.
Expanding access to AskRail app
The industry is expanding its efforts to make the AskRail app accessible to every first responder. The app provides real-time information about the contents of every car in a train and the safe handling of those contents in the event of an accident. The industry will expand outreach and directly target emergency communication centers to promote broader access versus relying solely on individual downloads.
Railroads are also targeting all 50 state fire associations. If successful, these measures should dramatically increase the number of first responders that have access to AskRail, with a goal of doubling the number of first responders who have access to the tool by the end of 2023.
Congress and the USDOT can play a key role in the meantime in promoting both SERTC and AskRail, including through expanded outreach to states and counties.
Improving tank cars
Following the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) safety advisory on the “potential for certain manway assemblies with aluminum protective housing covers to melt when exposed to extreme heat as experienced in a pool fire situation,” the AAR’s Tank Car Committee is expanding the scope of a dedicated task force investigating the use of heat-resistant gaskets for tanks transporting flammable liquid. The task force, comprised of railroads, equipment owners and tank car manufacturers, will consider all fire performance improvements to service equipment.
FRA data show that the recent decade has been the safest ever for freight railroads.
This is especially true for hazmat transportation, where the accident rate is down 78% percent since 2000. Mainline accidents are down 44% in that same period and reached an all-time low in 2022.