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Rail safety proposed rule on minimum staffing announced

On March 15, 2016, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) published a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) on train crew staffing in the Federal Register, proposing a minimum of two crewmembers for all railroad operations except those that do not pose a significant safety risk.  The NPRM also defines the roles and responsibilities of the second crewmember.  Finally, the notice provides two options to accommodate railroads that prefer to operate with a single crewmember.  Comments are due to the FRA by May 16, 2016. Instructions of how to file comments are in NPRM.

While most train operations today involve at least two crewmembers, the FRA is concerned that anticipated technological advancements in the near future -- including positive train control -- may encourage railroads to reduce crew levels without full consideration of the potential safety risk.  Research suggests that multiple crewmembers may also improve safety by reducing the task overload experienced by a sole crewmember, thereby improving the crew's situational awareness.  Further, two-person crews may help provide timely response to incidents and ensure the necessary personnel to split up a disabled train to minimize grade crossing blockages.  Because metropolitan Chicago is a crossroads for the nation's rail system, rail safety is an important consideration for the many of the region's municipalities with rail lines within their boundaries. 

The NPRM illustrates the potential safety impacts with two recent incidents.  The fatal July 2013 derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada, resulted from a one-person crew failing to properly secure an unattended train.  In contrast, the presence of multiple crewmembers during a December 2013 derailment and explosion in Casselton, North Dakota, substantially reduced the risk of damage because the crew was able to move dozens of loaded crude oil cars away from a fire.

Summary of proposed rule

The NPRM contains two main provisions.  The first provision establishes a general rule that each train operation in the country shall be assigned at least a two-person crew.  The rule goes on to identify exceptions to this rule in various existing low-risk situations, including for trains that are not hauling large quantities of hazardous materials or traveling at high speeds, for tourist or other excursion trains, or for trains assisting in railroad operations (e.g., track maintenance, train assistance, or moving locomotives).  The NPRM defines the roles and responsibilities for the second crewmember; one key responsibility is the ability to communicate with the first crewmember (i.e., the locomotive engineer), even if located outside the operating cab.

The second provision provides two avenues (Option 1 and Option 2) for railroads to petition the FRA to use one-person crews, for either the continuation of existing operations or the initiation of new operations.  Option 1 would require a railroad to submit an application to the FRA, which would then be required to review and approve or reject the application within 90 days.  Existing one-person train operations would be allowed to continue during the 90-day review period.  Option 2 would require a railroad to submit documentation to the FRA demonstrating the safety of its proposed one-person train operations, but it would not require FRA approval before beginning or continuing service.  However, the FRA would reserve the right to investigate subsequent safety issues and to discontinue unsafe train operations.

Moving forward

GO TO 2040 is committed to a safe, efficient freight system for northeastern Illinois, including the rail network.  Across the country, rail safety issues have been particularly salient in recent years after a series of high-profile derailments, collisions, and releases of flammable liquids shipped by rail, as well as collisions at highway-rail grade crossings.  These issues resonate in the Chicago area, which is both a national hub for rail activity -- including crude-by-rail shipments -- and the home of some 1,500 at-grade crossings.

The FRA's proposed rulemaking acknowledges the positive safety impacts of new technologies, including positive train control, being adopted by the railroad industry.  However, the proposal for a two-person minimum train crew recognizes that, while these technologies can improve safety, they do not perform several important physical and cognitive functions currently performed by a second crewmember.  The proposal intends to ensure that the safety risk of one-person crews is properly considered.  Further, the NPRM would exempt very low risk operations and provide two options for railroads to petition the FRA to waive the requirement. 

Option 1 places the burden of proof on the railroad to demonstrate the safety of the proposed operation, which the FRA would then review and approve or reject.  In contrast, Option 2 may not provide for adequate protection of safety.  While it would require railroads to provide information to FRA, Option 2 would allow railroads to operate one-train crews without FRA approval and would only allow FRA to intervene after the fact, leaving a gap in safety oversight.  As such, Option 2 seems to provide less safety protection for the public.  The public deserves the assurance that a thorough risk analysis has been completed, that risks have been properly identified, and that they have been mitigated in advance of any approval for reduced crew staffing.

The NPRM does not specify how the FRA should evaluate proposed one-crew operations.  Several community impact criteria should be included in those evaluations, including potential for an increase in rail-related accidents and injuries should Option 2 be adopted.  Specifically, these criteria should address the potential impacts on highway-rail grade crossing delay for motorists -- a GO TO 2040 regional indicator -- along with potential delay for emergency vehicles. It is critical that no new risks or costs be placed on communities as a rail carrier looks to deploy new technologies.  The burden to mitigate these risks and costs should rest with the rail carrier in advance of deployment.  Further, it is important that these reviews ensure appropriate access to information for first responders in the event of an emergency.

CMAP recognizes that the freight system is not only one of the region's greatest economic assets, but also a key factor in quality of life for local communities.  This NPRM helps to advance both those causes by striking a balance, particularly with Option 1, between operational efficiency and safety.