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Railroads, union clash over use of track inspection technology

BNSF lawsuit against FRA highlights tension over technology’s deployment

Freight railroads and a union disagree over the use of an enhanced track geometry inspection technology. (Photo: Shutterstock/hxdyl)

U.S. freight railroads want to know why the Federal Railroad Administration appears to be halting the use of safety technology that has been successfully piloted among six Class I railroads.

But union members argue that the technology doesn’t cover all the elements of a track inspection. 

The technology is using enhanced track geometry as part of a broader automated track inspection program to detect defects in the rail track that the human eye can’t see. 

All of the Class I railroads, except Kansas City Southern, were granted permission from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to deploy pilot programs testing the technology. But FRA in recent months denied Norfolk Southern’s request to continue its pilot program after its expiration date, and the federal agency also declined to approve BNSF’s request to extend the program to two additional territories. That caused BNSF to sue FRA in federal court in April over the denial.

“To make us even safer, the solution is going to be in technology and being able to use various technological ways of inspecting equipment in particular, versus visual inspections, to get to a better place,” said Michael J. Rush, senior vice president for safety and operations for the Association of American Railroads. We’re in a good place now, but we always strive to be better. And technology is really the answer.”

Countered Roy Morrison, director of safety for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way – Employes Division: “We’re very much in favor of the track geometry systems. They do a very good job of looking for those defects better than any human could do. And we’ve acknowledged that in every one of our public statements. … [But] we just can’t see a justification for limiting the track inspections [because that] technology just doesn’t cover everything.”


Data from enhanced track geometry inspections is invaluable

Six of the Class I railroads have implemented pilot programs using enhanced track geometry inspections on their networks, although the railroads differ in how they implemented the program. Four railroads have programs that expire in November.

The freight railroads argue that the technology captures far more defects than the human eye could otherwise see. The data garnered from these inspections has also been vast, making its continued use so compelling. 

Because the technology outputs so much useful data, the railroads should be able to reduce — but not eliminate — the number of visual inspections that occur on a regular basis, the railroads argue. Those visual inspections are conducted by a rail employee. 

“The combination of enhanced track geometry inspections with reduced visual inspections gives you a far, far better system in terms of detecting track defects than the 50-year-old visual inspection regime,” Rush said. 

He continued, “I think we’ve gotten to the end of where we can really get with respect to using yesterday’s ways of doing things. The only way we’re going to make significant strides in safety is with technology. [Automated track inspection] should be viewed from that perspective. We need to be able to use technological innovation — to do things differently — not only for track but for rolling stock as well. And that’s how we’re going to get to a safer place. And so this debate is part of a larger perspective in terms of how we get to a safer place.”

Rush disagreed with FRA’s reasoning to deny BNSF’s waiver while the rail safety advisory committee is taking up the issue since the committee can still discuss the technology’s use while existing waivers and pilot programs are in place. The committee has done so previously at other times, according to Rush.

“Why would you stop a program that has a safety benefit while the discussions are going on? The rationale makes absolutely no sense,” Rush said. “From a safety perspective and from the perspective of [the committee], you want to continue these programs, not just because of the safety benefit they provide but because it gives you more data. And if you go down the rulemaking path, what’s wrong with more data?”

BNSF was granted a five-year waiver from FRA in January 2018 that enabled BNSF to deploy the technology in two of its territories, the Powder River territory and the Northern Transcon route. BNSF sought to extend that waiver to two other territories in June 2021, but FRA rejected that request in March 2022, saying that a rail safety advisory committee affiliated with FRA is studying the best approach to implementing automated track inspection tools and methodologies. BNSF sued FRA in April over the rejection because the railroad thinks it has met FRA’s qualifications allowing for a waiver extension. The legal proceeding is ongoing.

The data is impressive but it’s not exhaustive, union says

While the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way – Employes Division (BMWED) agrees with the usefulness of the data and the enhanced track geometry inspections, the union has a number of reservations.

Although the technology’s ability to detect track defects is impressive, the technology is unable to catch all the potential hazards that a visual inspection might catch, according to the union. Those include drainage or vegetation issues on the roadbed, track structure elements such as crossties, switches or rail joints, and track obstructions. 

The union calculates that there are 213 regulations pertaining to track inspections, and track geometric defects make up about 25% or 26% of those defects. The union also points to FRA data showing that of the track accidents that occurred between 2016 and 2021, the causes of 48 accidents could only be discovered through visual inspections while 14 could be detected by enhanced track geometry inspection. 

“Over 50% of the accidents that happened from 2016 to 2021 do not even have the ability to be found by the technology that they’re looking to use and those are the reasons that we have been opposed to everything that’s been presented so far,” Morrison said.

But one main concern is what could happen to the track inspectors should enhanced track geometry inspection continue without federal guidance or regulations about how to balance the use of technology with visual inspectors.

Although the railroads have argued that the technology frees up track inspectors to focus on areas where more attention might be needed, such as switches and curves, there is no guarantee that the track inspectors will actually end up doing those functions. Instead, track inspectors could potentially be assigned to cover wider territories three to four times larger than current responsibilities because of the extra time that they might have, according to Morrison. The benefits of the technology would be lost because there would be less time to focus on the trouble spots should inspectors’ territories get larger. 

Furthermore, while a visual inspection will always occur, per federal regulations, there is nothing regulating the frequency of either the visual inspections or the inspections conducted by technology.

When FRA was seeking public comments in June 2021 on whether it should extend BNSF’s waiver to two territories, BMWED sent letters asking for the waiver’s denial. Morrison agrees with FRA’s decision. 

“We do think that, on this issue, the current FRA administration is taking the right stance, at the very least in the fact that they don’t want to regulate by waiver. If this is really something that’s going to be adopted industry wide, they want a regulation so that all of the railroads are inspecting by the same minimum standards,” Morrison said.

FRA wouldn’t comment on BNSF’s waiver application because it doesn’t comment on pending litigation. However, FRA told FreightWaves that it “is committed to promoting advancements in track inspection technologies in conjunction with visual track inspections to improve railroad track safety.”

For automated track inspections that means authorizing test programs for every railroad that requested them and using that data from the railroads’ programs to serve as a base for future FRA safety actions, according to FRA. The rail safety advisory committee also provides recommendations, informed by test program data, for a rulemaking to integrate automated track inspections into FRA’s track inspection regulations. 

“We take a comprehensive and systematic approach to advancing the use of technology in the industry,” FRA said.

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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.