As House Republicans Push an Extreme Budget That Slashes Rail Safety Inspections, USDOT Highlights New Efforts to Keep Communities Safe and Hold the Rail Industry Accountable
Following the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, USDOT has pushed a set of sweeping reforms to rail safety and called on Congress to support a budget that improves critical rail infrastructure and ensures rail inspections continue without interruption
Washington, DC— As part of its ongoing work to protect the American public, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration laid out a new round of steps focused on the safety and accountability of the freight rail industry. In recent days, FRA has issued two safety advisories to railroad companies—one regarding the length of trains, which can be more than one or two miles long; and another on weight distribution of railcars and how that affects the risk of derailment. FRA has also issued a new report summarizing rail safety violations in 2022, and it completed safety training with personnel from around the country, an important opportunity to share updated safety practices.
Meanwhile, House Republicans recently passed legislation that would cut discretionary spending by 22%, which would lead to nearly 7,500 fewer rail safety inspection days and over 30,000 fewer miles of track inspected annually—enough track to cross the United States nearly 10 times. By contrast President Biden’s FY2024 Budget calls for an investment of more than $1 billion to expand USDOT’s core rail safety efforts and improve critical infrastructure.
USDOT’s ongoing work to improve rail safety includes:
- Safety Advisories and Bulletins:
- Safety Advisory 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.
- Safety 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.
- Safety Advisory for Tank Car Covers: USDOT’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.
- Safety 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.
- Safety 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.
- Safety Advisory for Hot Bearing Detectors: FRA urged railroads using hot bearing 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. The full advisory can be found here.
- 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.
- FRA Annual Enforcement Report: FRA issued the agency's FY22 Enforcement Report summarizing the civil penalties against railroad companies for safety violations. The report includes a summary of rail safety and hazmat compliance inspections and audits as well as enforcement actions recommended by FRA.
- FRA Safety Trainings: FRA gathered nearly 500 agency safety personnel from around the country in groups over a 3-week period to conduct bi-annual safety training. This training includes discipline-specific and cross discipline topics, such as new and emerging technology, rules, enforcement and investigation strategy, and tactics to ensure coordinated and consistent oversight and outreach across the rail industry.
- Bipartisan Legislation: The Senate proposal, endorsed by President Biden, includes provisions that Secretary Buttigieg called for in February as part of a three-part drive to increase rail safety, such as significantly increasing fines on industry for safety violations, strengthening rules for trains carrying hazardous materials, increasing funding for hazmat training, accelerating the timeline to phase in more robust tank cars, and ensuring a minimum of two crew members on trains.
- Holding Norfolk Southern Accountable: FRA is conducting a supplemental safety assessment of Norfolk Southern Railway following multiple incidents. The safety assessment exceeds the scope of existing FRA audits and takes an expansive look at Norfolk Southern’s overall safety culture and operations.
- Funding Hazmat Rail First Responders: PHMSA announced more than $25 million available in grant funding through the Assistance for Local Emergency Response Training (ALERT) grant program. 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.
- Targeted Inspections: FRA announced focused inspections, starting with targeted track inspections in and around East Palestine on routes that carry large volumes of hazardous materials, which will expand nationwide.
- Rail Worker Confidential Safety Reporting Program: After Secretary Buttigieg pressed them, all Class I freight railroads agreed to participate in the Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS) program for rail employees to help prevent safety issues.
- Meeting with Labor Leaders: USDOT leadership gathered leaders from unions representing tens of thousands of rail employees to hear safety concerns, both short- and long-term. USDOT's three-part approach includes a push to guarantee paid sick leave for all rail workers.
- Emergency Breathing Apparatus NPRM: FRA issued a Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would require railroads to provide emergency escape breathing apparatus to train crews and other employees when transporting certain hazardous materials.
- Investments in Rail Safety: In the first year of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, FRA invested over $370M in safety improvements to physical infrastructure including nearly $190M for upgrades to tracks. In the coming weeks, FRA will announce awards for the new Railroad Crossing Elimination Program and the next round of the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) Program.
- President’s FY2024 Budget Request: $273.5 million to support the agency’s railroad safety personnel, expand critical inspection and audit capabilities, enhance data analysis to better identify the root causes of railroad safety incidents, and increase stakeholder outreach and partnerships to address and eliminate threats to public safety. $760 million for both the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) program and Railroad Crossing Elimination program to provide additional dedicated grant funding to improve nearly all facets of railroad safety, including upgrading track, rolling stock, and signal systems; supporting railroad employee safety training programs; and preventing railroad trespassing and highway-rail grade crossing collisions. $59 million for a cross-cutting Research & Development program to advance new technologies and practices to improve railroad safety.
Investigators from USDOT’s FRA and PHMSA were on the ground within hours of the Norfolk Southern Railway train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3, 2023. The agencies are supporting the investigation being led by the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent agency. For more on the federal response and jurisdiction, including the U.S. Environmental Protection’s work to address air, water, and soil quality, see here.
To get the latest information on the investigation, please visit NTSB’s website.