Amidst rising scrutiny over freight rail safety practices, particularly the length and make-up of trains, a common question raised by the media has been why regulators didn’t prevent this kind of dangerous corporate practice before disaster struck. Seemingly in response to that question, the Federal Railroad Administration, which regulates freight rail safety, issued an advisory last week that essentially asked railroads to please make trains safer.
The advisory comes after a series of articles published by mainstream news outlets in recent weeks confirming what Motherboard has been reporting for more than two years: Industry-wide cost-cutting efforts have made the freight rail industry more dangerous, increasing the likelihood of a catastrophic incident where a train loaded with hazardous materials derails near or in a populated area, such as the one that occurred in East Palestine, Ohio. In particular, slashed workforces, inadequate car inspection times, and longer trains with imbalanced weight distributions have become particularly urgent safety concerns.
The FRA’s advisory confirms this, “emphasizing significant safety concerns related to train makeup,” referring both to how long freight trains are and how they are put together, the memo said. “FRA has noticed a rising trend in recent incidents where train build and makeup have been identified as a potential cause or contributing factor.”
The advisory cites six such derailments from three different companies dating back almost two years (East Palestine, which was caused by an overheated axle, is not on the list, although the National Transportation Safety Board has not yet released a full report on all the contributing factors). The first, on May 16, 2021 when a Union Pacific train derailed in Sibley, Iowa, also featured a large hazardous materials release that forced the town to evacuate for three days. According to the FRA, all the derailed trains shared 10 characteristics, including 125 or more cars and having a locomotive in the middle of the train to add power which is called a Distributed Power Unit or DPU. DPUs generally make it easier to control the train but, as the FRA says in the advisory, “they should not be considered a replacement for proper train car placement and makeup.” The other common characteristic was the first car to derail was empty, indicating the complicated but powerful forces of a multi-mile train lifted or pushed an empty car off the tracks.
But, the advisory stops short of doing anything other than, well, advising. It has six “recommended best practices” that include: “comprehensive, effective, and current” policies, train personnel “effectively,” establishing systems to monitor train makeup practices, and “encouraging open communication and collaboration among all stakeholders.”
Two of the derailments mentioned in the advisory were Union Pacific trains. Union Pacific spokesperson Robynn Tysver said, “Union Pacific shares the same goals as our regulators, customers and the communities we serve – to safely deliver every carload. Even as train length has grown, mainline and siding derailments are down 13% since 2013 and 26% since 2019.” (The rate of derailment per million miles traveled is increasing industrywide.) Tysver said UP has implemented better technology and more training programs to increase safety.
Three of the derailments mentioned were Norfolk Southern trains. Connor Spielmaker, a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern, said the company introduced “a number of operational changes in March that address the way trains are built with the goal of minimizing train incidents, including derailments, by managing potential in-train forces. Trains over certain lengths and weights, for example, require the use of distributed power (DP) units. We’ve also adjusted the positioning of lighter and heavier cars to further manage weight distribution in trains, as well as the positioning of cars equipped with cushioning devices to further manage slack. We're confident that as we continue to implement these changes to improve safety and service reliability, service will continue to improve.”
What will happen if railroads don’t take this safety advisory to heart? The FRA may consider, according to the advisory, “other appropriate action necessary” including “additional safety advisories.”