Congress’ infrastructure bill is no stranger to controversial issues, including train crew sizes, the prospect of shipping liquefied natural gas via rail, and government studies on precision scheduled railroading and demurrage and accessorial charges.
Add one other item to the list: federal regulation on air brakes.
Part of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s (T&I) INVEST in America Act, which has been folded into the Moving Forward Act, is an item pertaining to DB-60 air brake control valves.
Under the header “leaking brakes,” the bill calls for trains operating north of the 37th parallel to stop using DB-60 air brake control valves manufactured before Jan. 1, 2006. The ban would apply to unit trains starting Aug. 1, 2022, and to nonunit trains starting Aug. 1, 2024.
Unit trains typically handle a single commodity, such as coal, grain or petroleum products. States whose southern borders run along the 37th parallel are Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, most of Nevada and half of California.
The bill also calls for the federal government to track the progress on phasing out these brakes and the number of trains still operating with them. If other air brake control valves are found to be leaking, the federal government should also seek to phase them out, according to the bill.
The T&I Committee included this proposal as a result of industry discussion over the past five years about the brakes’ functionality in cold weather. The rail union SMART-Transportation Division had raised concerns to the Federal Railroad Administration about the brake valves freezing in areas that experienced sustained low temperatures. Meanwhile, the T&I Committee included this provision so that the issue could be addressed in a timely manner, according to sources.
To address the issue of brake functionality in cold weather, valve manufacturers have been performing cold weather testing on the equipment and some railroads have wheel temperature detectors that aid in determining the effectiveness of brakes on each car.
SMART-Transportation Division didn’t respond to a request for comment, but it has previously stated its opposition to the brakes, saying that malfunctioning main air brake control valves can prevent trains from going into emergency braking mode during cold weather.
“The FRA and the AAR [Association of American Railroads] have known about this issue for too long and have done too little to address it in a timely fashion. The safety of the public and all railroaders should never be compromised for the sake of productivity,” SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said in December.
AAR said the provision should not be in the bill.
“AAR is opposed to the inclusion of this language in the bill. The mandate in the bill is unnecessary as there is already a forthcoming AAR interchange rule that would address the replacement of air brake components on unit trains operating in extremely cold weather. The AAR effort is well underway and more comprehensive than what is outlined in the bill, which addresses only one type of brake valve,” AAR said.
AAR continued: “To date, railroads have already changed out tens of thousands of air brake components, including the DB-60, and many other brake valves and other brake components for unit trains. Additionally, the industry is also developing a strategy to test all types of brake valves and related components on moving trains in cold temperatures, rather than the narrowly-focused proposed mandate before the T&I Committee.”
The rail industry in Canada has been holding similar discussions around brake valves, according to sources, but the Railway Association of Canada didn’t respond to a request for comment. Cold weather can alter how the Canadian railroads operate in winter.