AAR Outlines Key Class I Safety Actions

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor, Railway Age
Ian Jefferies, President and CEO, Association of American Railroads
Ian Jefferies, President and CEO, Association of American Railroads

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) on March 8 reported seven initial steps the Class I railroads are taking “to drive toward a future with zero incidents and zero injuries—one where what happened in East Palestine never happens again.” Those include the installation of approximately 1,000 new hot bearing detectors (HBD), expanding support for first responders, and initiating actions based on a preliminary NTSB advisory.

Aerial photograph of the Ohio derailment site, courtesy of the NTSB.

“Healthy railroads are essential to the U.S. economy, and consistently and reliably safe operations are essential to healthy railroads,” AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies said. “Our long history of voluntarily employing safety measures that go above and beyond federal requirements proves our belief in that principle. While we will continue to follow the National Transportation Safety Board’s ongoing investigation in Ohio closely and recognize its deliberate, methodical, and fact-based approach, railroads are committed to taking appropriate steps now.”

Those seven steps are:

1. Detectors—Spacing: “The industry has long recognized the risk posed by hot bearings and voluntarily installed thousands of HBDs across the railroad network,” AAR reported. “The railroads have also voluntarily installed acoustic bearing detectors, which can ascertain potential problems from the noise created by bearings that are starting to fail. For over three decades, the Class I railroads have voluntarily spaced HBDs no more than 40 miles apart on key routes, which are routes over which commodities that are particularly hazardous travel. In recent years, all the Class I railroads have reduced their HBD spacing significantly below the 40-mile criterion. All Class I railroads have now agreed to go further and are immediately beginning to install additional HBDs across their key routes, with the goal of achieving average spacing of 15 miles, except if the route is equipped with acoustic bearing detection capability or other similar technology. This will amount to the deployment of approximately 1,000 new HBDs. A route containing acoustic bearing detection capability or other similar technology shall maintain maximum HBD spacing not to exceed 20 miles where practical due to terrain and operating conditions. Inoperative HBDs on key routes will generate critical incident tickets and be prioritized for dispatch and repair without undue delay.”

2. Detectors—New Action Threshold: The Class I’s are committing to stopping trains and inspecting bearings whenever the temperature reading from an HBD exceeds 170° above ambient temperature, according to AAR, which said this will become “a new industry standard.”

3. Detectors—Shared Trending Analysis: AAR reported that analysis of trending data from multiple HBDs “can reveal a bearing problem before an absolute temperature threshold is reached. While HBDs have been in use for a long time, it is relatively recently that software and data processing have led to the ability to proactively identify bearings that have not yet exceeded absolute temperature thresholds but that, based on HBD trending data, may become problematic and should be addressed.” The association said that Class I railroads each have a different approach to trending analysis, and are now reviewing the programs they use, targeting March 31 “to arrive at recommendations regarding the use of trending analyses.”

4. Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS): All seven Class I railroads on March 3 agreed to join the Federal Railroad Administration’s voluntary C3RS program to supplement their own programs for confidential reporting of safety issues.

SERTC Photograph

5. Training: The Class I’s in 2023 will train some 20,000 first responders in local communities across the country on accident mitigation, AAR reported. In addition, the industry “will facilitate the training of 2,000 first responders at the Security and Emergency Response Training Center (SERTC) facility in Colorado, which includes enhanced scenario planning and training at a new facility.” SERTC is a member of the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium (NDPC), which fully funds local, state, tribal and territorial first responders to attend any of SERTC’s DHS/FEMA-certified courses, AAR noted. 

6. AskRail: AAR reported that the industry “is expanding its efforts to get the AskRail app (which provides real-time information about the contents of every car in a train and the safe handling of those contents in the event of an accident) into the hands of every first responder by directly targeting emergency communication centers to promote broader access versus relying solely on individual downloads.” Railroads, the association said, are also targeting all 50 state fire associations. “If successful, these measures should dramatically increase the number of first responders that have access to AskRail, with a goal of doubling the number of first responders who have access to the tool by the end of 2023,” AAR said.

7. Tank Car Improvement: Following a March 3 safety advisory from the NTSB raising the “potential for certain manway assemblies with aluminum protective housing covers to melt when exposed to extreme heat as experienced in a pool fire situation,” AAR said its Tank Car Committee “is accelerating the work of a dedicated task force that has been investigating the use of heat-resistant gaskets for tanks transporting flammable liquid. The task force, comprised of railroads, equipment owners and tank car manufacturers, will expand its scope to consider all fire performance improvements to service equipment.”

“Rail is indisputably the safest way to move dangerous commodities,” said Jefferies of AAR, which on March 3 reported that the accident rate for hazardous material transportation is down 78% since 2000, and main line accidents are down 44% for that same period and reached an all-time low in 2022. “Yet we fully appreciate that these data do not comfort the residents of East Palestine and that public trust must be restored through action. Until we achieve our goal of zero, we will maintain our fierce commitment to getting there.”

AAR also encouraged policymakers, when participating in public policy discussions “to take an objective, data-driven approach. Policy actions taken reflexively that are not likely to achieve meaningful safety benefits could have a wide range of unintended economic and environmental consequences and a negative impact on the safe movement of all goods, including hazmat.”

Additionally, “Congress and the USDOT can play a key role in the meantime in promoting both SERTC and AskRail, including through expanded outreach to states and counties. An all-the-above approach is needed,” the association said.

Further Reading:

NTSB: ‘Special Investigation’ of NS

FRA: Supplemental Safety Assessment of NS Operations

Norfolk Southern Outlines New Six-Point Safety Plan

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