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Freight rail industry outlines next moves to improve safety

Actions represent ‘initial set of steps’ to get to zero incidents and injuries, AAR says

The Association of American Railroads has outlined what steps the rail industry could take next to boost rail safety. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

The freight rail industry has outlined what steps it will take next to boost rail safety, including installing approximately 1,000 new wayside detectors and improving communications with first responders.

These actions come as the rail industry responds to recent safety advisories from the National Transportation Safety Board calling for it to bolster rail safety even as it awaits the agency’s findings on the factors that caused the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio.

“[The actions are] an initial set of steps it is taking in its drive toward a future with zero incidents and zero injuries — one where what happened in East Palestine never happens again,” the Association of American Railroads (AAR) said in a news release Wednesday. “The industry believes that the Feb. 3 derailment and its aftermath require railroads and freight shippers alike to lead with actions that restore trust, and that will make a difference in the march toward zero.” 

AAR is a trade group that counts the Class I railroads as among its members.

The rail industry expects to address the following issues, per the AAR release:

  • Improve spacing of wayside detectors: The Class I railroads plan to immediately begin to install additional hot bearing detectors (HBDs) on their networks, with a goal of achieving an average spacing of 15 miles. This will amount to the deployment of about 1,000 new HBDs.

The exception to this spacing is if the route is already equipped with acoustic bearing detection capability or other similar technology. If so, the maximum HBD spacing will not exceed 20 miles where practical due to terrain and operating conditions. 

For more than three decades, the Class I railroads have been voluntarily deploying HBDs, spaced no more than 40 miles apart, on key routes, including those that might see hazardous materials traffic. 

  • Set a new industry standard for when HBD indicates when to stop trains: The industry must establish a new standard for stopping trains and inspecting bearings. The standard will be when a reading from an HBD exceeds 170 degrees above ambient temperature. 
  • Reach a consensus on how to interpret trending data from HBDs: Data trends from HBDs could potentially reveal bearing problems before an absolute temperature threshold is reached. 

“While HBDs have been in use for a long time, it is relatively recently that software and data processing have led to the ability to proactively identify bearings that have not yet exceeded absolute temperature thresholds but that, based on HBD trending data, may become problematic and should be addressed,” AAR said. “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. The Class I railroads are reviewing the trending analyses programs each uses and have targeted March 31 to arrive at recommendations regarding the use of trending analyses.”

  • Participate in the Department of Transportation’s program that provides a hotline for workers to anonymously provide tips on operational concerns. 
  • Bolster training efforts: The rail industry will facilitate the training of 2,000 first responders at the Security and Emergency Response Training Center in Pueblo, Colorado. The industry also expects to train roughly 20,000 first responders on accident mitigation.
  • Increase participation of first responders and fire associations in the AskRail app, which AAR says 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. 
  • Consider additional tank car improvements: AAR’s tank car committee will accelerate its research into the use of heat-resistant gaskets for tank cars transporting flammable liquid. AAR says the committee expects to expand its examination to consider all fire performance improvements to service equipment. 

“Our long history of voluntarily employing safety measures that go above and beyond federal requirements proves our belief in that principle,” AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies said. “While we will continue to follow the National Transportation Safety Board’s ongoing investigation in Ohio closely and recognize its deliberate, methodical and fact-based approach, railroads are committed to taking appropriate steps now.” 

On the same day of AAR’s announcement, NS (NYSE: NSC) said it would be creating a new regional training center in Ohio for first responders, as well as expanding the company’s operational awareness and response (OAR) program. This program trains first responders who would be involved in any incidents on NS’ 22-state network. 

The regional training center would be for emergency responders in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and the greater region, according to NS, while the OAR program will travel from state to state. NS expects the program to make 12 stops in 2023, with four scheduled in Ohio. 

“These commitments are the direct result of my conversations with [Ohio] Gov. [Mike] DeWine and other leaders, all to better support our first responders and their communities,” Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw said in a news release. “First responders are often immediately on the scene of a rail incident, and we want to ensure they have the knowledge and tools to work safely and effectively to protect the health and safety of their fellow citizens.” 

CSX details safety initiatives

Earlier this week, CSX (NASDAQ: CSX) separately outlined some of what it is doing to bolster rail safety. 

Those activities have included updating its hot bearing detector network and acoustic bearing detectors network with second-generation technology; installing three automated inspection portals on high-volume main lines to detect defects as a train is in motion; using autonomous track assessment cars to gather data on track conditions; deploying drones to map rail yards, inspect facilities and facilitate storm responses, among other items; and growing its workforce, including the hiring of more than 2,000 conductors last year. 

CSX also uses advanced risk assessment technology annually to determine the shortest and safest routes to transport goods categorized as hazardous. The railroad also says it has been conducting hazardous materials training events for first responders, contractors and government officials. 

CSX added that it will spend $1.7 billion out of a total of $2.3 billion budget on track, bridge and signal projects in 2023. 

“CSX understands that safety is the foundation of our business, which depends upon our ability to work collaboratively as a ‘One CSX’ team to deliver customers’ freight safely, reliably and sustainably,” CSX President and CEO Joe Hinrichs said in a Tuesday news release. “Everything we do at our company is centered around our recognition that the safety of our employees and the communities where we operate is paramount.”

On Wednesday, a CSX train derailed in Sandstone, West Virginia, when it struck a rockslide while on the track. CSX said Thursday it is working with responding agencies and has taken safety measures to ensure any leaked diesel fuel from the derailment doesn’t harm the local environment. CSX also said two out of the three crew members remain hospitalized and are being treated for non-life-threatening injuries. 

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.