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Tales from DC: 50th Meeting of Railroad Safety Advisory Committee

Posted in on Tue, Nov 19, 2013

From Law Offices of Adele Abrams, Esq., ASSE’s Federal Representative –

On October 31, 2013, I represented ASSE at the 50th meeting of the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee in Washington, DC.  This is a very large federal advisory committee – probably over 50 members were in attendance and they include representatives from most of the railroad associations and some less intuitive groups: American Chemistry Council, American Public Transportation Association, American Petroleum Institute, the Chlorine Institute, Institute of Makers of Explosives, the Fertilize Institute, groups from Canada and Mexico, and multiple unions.  The committee tends to focus on safety solely and are not currently addressing occupational health issues for railroad workers.  It was noted during the meeting that OSHA is getting more active in railroad safety and health issues.

Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo gave an introductory statement noting the impact of the October 2013 government shutdown on his agency and the fact that they are playing “catch up” now. He briefly discussed an accident in Quebec which cost 47 lives and noted how a significant amount of crude oil and ethanol is now being transported by rail and this requires examination. FRA has issued an emergency order preventing trains from moving unintentionally, and they are working with PHMSA with the goal of safely transporting oil and gas. He said that the US rail system is extremely safe and 2012 had the best safety record in history. Despite this, FRA is looking to add “safety redundancy standards, practices, testing and training … to look at everything through a fresh set of eyes, identify gaps and close them.” The agency will also add a webpage to inform the public about RSAC recommendations and how they are implemented. Other actions planned include looking at the issue of corrosion in tank cars, HAZMAT transport regulations to see if they need revision, and best practices for securing trains. They are also examining train crew size (many have a single crew member which does not provide for assistance in cases of emergencies). Szabo added there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Following the initial remarks, members presented work product from various working groups that had met for three days prior to RSAC. The issues addressed include HAZMAT issues, rail failure, train securement, engineering, train crew size, fatigue management planning, and risk reduction.  The public observers were informed up front that no questions would be taken from them.

Among the more significant issues:

  • The Association of American Railroads is compiling data related to car types
  • FRA is seeking a new definition of “Residue” and determination of what constitutes “residue volume” in empty cars
  • Labor will provide a list of training needs within the confines of HAZMAT regulations
  • They are considering beefing up pre-trip inspection requirements
  • The “combustible” classification will be changed to harmonize with international regulation (GHS?)
  • They are evaluating the risk of cars needing “special handling” being left unattended
  • They are developing recordkeeping procedures for inspections and training
  • They are developing predictive modeling software to improve preventive maintenance programs
  • They are considering under what circumstances to bar single member train crews and possibly imposing a “baseline” requirement for 2-member crews for freight and passenger lines (with exceptions for short line railroads)
  • With respect to fatigue, they are looking at scheduling practices and the impact of temperature and vibration on train crews – it was noted that management opposed to adding procedures on dispute resolution – and they are working to develop a Fatigue Reference Guide (currently looking at economic impacts)
  • They are developing a Risk Reduction Program (RRP), mandated by the Rail Safety Improvements Act of 2008. There is no consensus within the group, but a draft NPRM is in the clearance process now. It is a contentious issue and the short line railroads are opposed to the RRP. There is an issue on how to identify rail lines with “inadequate” safety records and concern about reliance on subjective data.

The final presentation was on the FRA’s regulatory agenda. There are quite a few “significant” rules in the pipeline, including the RRP (an ANPRM was published on 12/8/10 and the NPRM is slated for publication and comment in early 2014). There is also a training standard for railroad employees at the final rule stage, with publication due in early 2014.

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