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FACT SHEET ON RAIL SAFETY

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Since President Biden took office, the Biden-Harris Administration has taken key steps to improve the safety of our railways by deploying funding from the President’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, holding railroads accountable, raising rail safety standards, and supporting first responders and rail workers. Following the Norfolk Southern derailment last year, the Administration has mobilized a comprehensive, cross-agency effort to support the people of East Palestine, Ohio. And, while the President has been pushing to increase rail safety, House Republicans have actively worked against this progress by voting to cut rail safety measures.  

For nearly two centuries, railroads have been an indispensable part of America’s economy, society, and way of life. They are a vital component of our supply chains and get goods and people where they need to go. But no transportation system can succeed, long-term, if it is not safe—safe for the workers who operate it, and for the communities that rely on it. Safety is the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) top priority. That means ensuring each and every day that the freight rail industry lives up to its obligations to keep communities and workers safe. It means funding infrastructure projects to improve both the safety and the efficiency of our nation’s rail network. And it means working with Congress to advance regulation in areas that need it.  

In the early 2010s, we saw a number of high-profile freight rail incidents across the U.S. and Canada, including one that left nearly 50 people dead. Those events led to the passage of significant new rail safety rules—over strong opposition from industry. Since those changes, we have seen real improvement: derailments decreased by 15% on main line tracks, and lives were certainly saved. A decade later, this progress has plateaued, with Class I freight railroad safety performance data showing that rates of derailments and preventable incidents continue to impact communities and workers in unacceptable ways. 

But, as last year’s Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine demonstrated, we can and must do more. DOT is using the full range of its authority, as well as funding available from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, to improve rail safety, as detailed below. The Department has taken action to raise rail safety standards, hold railroads accountable, support first responders, and protect rail workers. But DOT cannot do this alone.  

Achieving the highest level of rail safety requires active and continued partnership from Congress. And rail companies must also take urgent, dedicated action that includes not just complying with current standards, but decisively putting the long-term safety of workers and communities ahead of short-term opportunities to supercharge profits. 

Deployment of Funding under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law: In 2023, the Department deployed a historic level of infrastructure funds for programs including the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) program, the new Railroad Crossing Elimination (RCE) program, and Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing (RRIF) program to modernize and upgrade rail infrastructure, including track improvements, bridge replacements and rehabilitations, highway-rail grade crossing eliminations, at-grade rail crossings, upgrades on routes carrying hazardous materials, support for workforce development and training activities, and more.  These federal investments address long-standing rail needs and support communities nationwide by moving people and goods safely, efficiently, reliably, and conveniently.  

Holding Railroads Accountable

  • Focused Inspection Programs:  DOT’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) initiated multiple inspection programs in 2023 and completed a focused review of tank cars transporting hazardous materials. FRA also completed the field work for its high hazard flammable train (HHFT) route assessment, a focused inspection and investigation program encompassing approximately 7,500 inspections to assess the condition of track and signal and train control infrastructure, equipment, and operating practices along HHFT routes and routes where large quantities of hazardous materials travel. This program in total inspected over 40,000 freight cars, 76,888 miles of track (87% were on routes over which hazardous materials are transported), and thousands of wayside detectors on over 25 different railroads. FRA is taking action based on these finding, and the inspections completed are prompting railroads to take corrective actions to increase safety. The results are available here
  • Safety Assessment of Norfolk Southern: FRA conducted a supplemental safety assessment of Norfolk Southern’s safety culture and safety practices. FRA is in the process of conducting comprehensive assessments of the safety culture, practices, and regulatory compliance of each Class I railroad. FRA also is assessing issues, trends, and commonalities across the multiple railroads reviewed. 
  • Rail Worker Confidential Close Call Reporting System: After Secretary Buttigieg pressed them, all Class I freight railroads agreed to participate in the Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS) for rail employees to help identify and better prevent safety issues. But adoption has been too slow. Norfolk Southern announced earlier this year they would be joining a pilot C3RS program with some of their crew members represented by BLET and SMART-TD. In April, BNSF Railway and their train dispatchers represented by ATDA also reached an agreement to join a pilot of this vital safety program. FRA is still pressing the issue and expects the Class 1 railroads will make good on their commitment.
  • FY23 Annual Enforcement Report: FRA issued its yearly report in February outlining civil penalties against railroads for safety violations. The report includes a summary of safety and hazmat compliance inspections and audits as well as recommended enforcement actions.  
  • 2024 Civil Penalties Update: FRA recently updated all of its rail safety civil penalties schedules and guidelines to reflect new inflation-adjusted statutory minimum and maximum civil penalties, updating the guidelines on a line-by-line basis. This update includes adding specific penalties for statutory hours of service provisions, which were not previously in the guidelines. 
  • DOT put Norfolk Southern on notice for needed safety reforms and called for an end to the rail industry’s “vigorous resistance” to increased safety measures, which in the past has included lobbying and litigation to kill commonsense rail safety reforms.   

Raising Rail Safety Standards: 

  • Final Rule on Train Crew Size Safety Requirements: FRA issued a long-awaited rule that ensures trains are safely staffed by establishing minimum safety requirements for the size of train crews, codifying crew staffing rules at a federal level and ensuring that freight and passenger rail operations are governed by consistent safety rules in all states. The new rule will enhance safety in the rail industry by generally requiring and emphasizing the importance and necessity of a second crewmember on all trains.
  • Certification of Signal and Dispatcher Employees: FRA is pushing forward rulemakings that would require railroads to develop written programs for certifying dispatchers and signal employees.  
  • Final Rule Requiring Emergency Escape Breathing Apparatus: FRA issued a final rule requiring railroads to provide emergency escape breathing apparatus to train crews and other employees when transporting certain hazardous materials. 
  • Calling for rail industry and Congress to step up. DOT is pressing for passage of the bipartisan Railway Safety Act, which would phase in newer, safer tank cars, increase fines against railroads for safety violations, require defect detectors, expand the list of hazardous materials that qualify for strict safety precautions, and more.  
  • Actions on Long Trains: FRA issued a Safety Advisory to increase awareness of the potential complexities associated with operating longer trains and urged railroads to address them to ensure safety. The advisory also highlights several safety risks relating to blocked crossings, notably the impacts blocked rail crossings can have on first responders as they work to address emergencies and reach people in need. For the first time, FRA-led efforts are also underway to gather more information on long trains operated by freight railroads and improve incident data collection on train length. 
  • Advisory on Train Makeup: FRA issued a Safety Advisory calling on freight railroads to prioritize proper train makeup, and provided recommendations to improve train safety and reduce the risk of future accidents. The advisory makes clear that railroads need to take proactive measures to ensure the configuration of railcars and the loading of cargo is performed safely and railroad workers are supported and trained fully to ensure safety. The configuration of railcars and how cargo gets loaded can be critical to the risk of derailment.  
  • Advisory for Tank Car Covers: DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) acted on initial findings from the NTSB investigation into the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, and issued a Safety Advisory for tank car covers.  
  • Advisory on Tank Car Type: PHMSA released a Safety Advisory pressing rail tank car owners and hazmat shippers of flammable liquids to remove their DOT-111 and CPC-1232 tank cars and replace them with DOT-117 tank cars. The incident in East Palestine, OH, demonstrated that DOT-111 and CPC-1232 tank cars do not perform at the highest level of survivability during derailments and fires, unlike the DOT-117 tank cars.    
  • Advisory for Hot Bearing Wayside Detectors: FRA urged railroads using hot bearing wayside detectors (HBDs) to evaluate their inspection process, prioritize the proper training and qualification of personnel working with HBDs, and improve the safety culture of their organizations related to HBDs decision-making. The full advisory can be found here. FRA’s Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) continues reviewing issues related to wayside detectors as part of the committee's work to finalize recommendations or proposals to help advance safety.
  • Safety Advisory on Roadway Maintenance Machines: FRA issued a Safety Advisory to emphasize the importance of rules and procedures regarding the safety of roadway workers who operate or work near roadway maintenance machines. The advisory recommends reviewing and updating rules regarding the safety of roadway workers who operate or work near these machines. 
  • Safety Bulletin on Hand-Operated Main Track Switches: FRA issued a Safety Bulletin to emphasize the importance of ensuring safe operations of hand-operated main track switches. FRA is investigating an April 16 train collision and derailment involving a misaligned switch that resulted in serious injuries to crew members.  
  • Safety Bulletin on Car Switching Hazards: FRA issued a Safety Bulletin to increase awareness of the hazards relating to switching cars. FRA is investigating a recent switching accident that resulted in a crewmember leg amputation. 
  • Safety Advisory on Preventing Weather-Related Accidents and Incidents: FRA issued a Safety Advisory to increase awareness of the 123 rail accidents and incidents since the beginning of 2021 that have been reported to FRA as having been caused by severe weather conditions or weather-related events (e.g., hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, flooding, mudslides, and summer heat). The Advisory makes clear railroads need to proactively plan and examine their procedures to ensure safety as severe weather becomes more frequent.  

Supporting First Responders and Rail Workers

  • Sick leave: Since the Administration has pressed railroads to provide paid sick leave for railroad workers, approximately 90 percent of Class I freight railroad workers now have paid sick leave, a significant improvement from about 5% who had coverage at the end of 2022.
  • Funding Hazmat Rail First Responders: In September 2023, PHMSA announced more than $30 million to support firefighters, and local hazardous materials safety planning and response efforts. These grants help train first responders, strengthen safety programs, improve general safety, reduce environmental impacts, and educate the public on local safety initiatives. In recent years thousands of responders nationwide have received training thanks to this program, including 2,500+ responders in 137 different locations in Ohio. 
  • Advanced Notifications: On June 24, 2024, PHMSA adopted a rule to require railroads to always maintain — and update in real-time — accurate, electronic information about rail hazmat shipments in a train consist that would be accessible to authorized emergency response personnel. Railroads are also required to proactively “push” that information to Public Safety Answering Points (like 9-1-1 call centers) as soon as the railroad is aware of an accident involving any hazardous materials.  
  • Opening an expanded HAZMAT training facility: Earlier this year, PHMSA  expanded its National Training and Qualifications Branch (NTQB) facility. This expansion will allow PHMSA to train more first responders than ever before -- increasing throughput by 150%. Since 2013, this national training facility has trained thousands of pipeline and hazardous materials transport investigators, inspectors, and staff, as well as other hazardous materials safety professionals, and first responders from around the United States and around the world. 
  • Advisory for Emergency Response Plans: PHMSA urged all railroad operators to create and maintain emergency response plans for the transport of hazardous materials, strengthen the accessibility of the AskRail system that provides real-time information on shipments to first responders, and inform PHMSA when they identify responders who are not able to access PHMSA’s grant-funded training. The full advisory can be found here
  • Advisory for 9-1-1 call centers: PHMSA encouraged 9-1-1 call centers to use technologies such as the AskRail application that provide critical information to first responders regarding rail incidents. The advisory is available here
  • High Hazard Train Regulations: PHMSA has announced the initiation of a rule to increase regulations on High-Hazard trains. In this rulemaking, PHMSA will amend the Hazardous Materials Regulations to implement regulatory requirements and operational controls on a larger set of newly-designated High-Hazard Trains thus ensuring more stringent standards for more classes of hazardous materials than railroads currently follow.