Stakeholders mixed on new rail inspection technology rule

Association of American Railroads supports rule, but union doesn’t

A new rule on rail inspection technology from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is garnering mixed reactions from rail industry stakeholders.

The Final Rule on Rail Integrity Amendments and Track Safety Standards enables the railroads to continue the practice of continuous rail inspection technology without the previous requirement of securing waivers. The rule allows rail testing vehicles to move without stopping along the track, thereby potentially decreasing passenger and freight train delays associated with routine inspections, the FRA says.. 

A lead trade association for freight rail praised the new rule. But a union group expressed concerns the rule would encourage the railroads to speed up inspections so trains would have more time receiving traffic.

Freight rail group the Association of American Railroads (AAR) applauded the rule, saying it  comes at a time when the technology’s success has proven itself across much of the U.S. rail network. Before the rule, railroads would have to seek waivers to deploy continuous rail inspection technology. The new rule codifies those waivers among other regulatory reforms, AAR said.

Conducting continuous rail testing is when rail cars, outfitted with ultrasonic and global positioning system (GPS) technologies, travel along the track and collect detailed imaging and location data. Remote sites analyze the data to look for suspected internal defects. 

If a defect is found, a rail inspector would confirm the issue and categorize the defect according to its risk level. Repairs would be scheduled according to the level of risk, with serious defects addressed first. Previously, an operator in a test vehicle would stop to verify each potential rail defect. 

“Continuous rail inspection is a proven, tested solution to efficiently and effectively monitor and maintain track health,” said AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies. “FRA’s common sense, data-driven decision will empower railroads to more broadly adopt this technology and increase the mileage of track inspected across the network. Freight railroads are grateful for this important regulatory modernization that will help drive further innovation and safety advancements in the industry.”

But the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division (BMWED) said it is concerned about the scheduling change for repairs, resulting from the rescinding of  the four-hour verification time. 

The union says the rule would encourage the railroads to pursue quicker inspection turnarounds so that companies could pursue more rail traffic. 

“While the BMWED is not necessarily against the use of continuous rail inspection technology, we are concerned with the timeframe extension the new rule grants the railroad is remedying defects,” the union said. “This rule has created substantial gaps in ensuring track integrity and comes at the same time the FRA is considering replacement of track inspectors with other new technologies (namely drones), where we have elements of concern.

BMWED continued, “This new rule seems to be more focused on the railroads ability to more quickly run inspections in order to move train traffic. During the comment period before the FRA issued its final rule, the BMWED asked the FRA to shorten the remedial action table to correct and repair the defects. Our recommendation was not included in the FRA’s final rule despite our requests.”

The new rule

According to FRA, the new rule permits railroads to use ultrasonic inspection technology to employ continuous rail testing without needing to apply for a waiver to use the technology. 

Updating the regulations to incorporate recent technologies should promote increased safety by making it easier for railroads to test rail more frequently and to identify and repair internal rail flaws before conditions degrade safety, FRA said.

“This rule will allow railroads to use the latest technology to continually monitor safety, which is a big step forward in strengthening safety and reliability on our nation’s railroads,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao said

Using the latest technology for continuous rail testing will enable rail companies to increase the miles inspected from about 20 miles of track a day to roughly 80 to 160 miles daily, FRA said. By using one continuous rail car to replace three to five stop-and-verify test cars, it reduces the number of test cars stopping on tracks. That, in turn, reduces the number of trains that must slow to accommodate test cars, FRA said. 

Enabling more frequent data collection will also pave the way towards more research on how track defects develop and propagate over time, the agency said. 

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.

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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.