Federal Railroad Administration should share findings on longer trains: study

By Joanna Marsh for freightwaves.com

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is currently conducting several research efforts related to the issues surrounding longer trains, and the agency should strive to better disseminate the results of those studies to stakeholders and local communities alike, a government report recommended.

“Developing and implementing a strategy for sharing FRA’s research results and identifying any potential impacts of longer freight trains on highway-railroad crossings would enable FRA and stakeholders to better determine what, if any, actions are needed to ensure the safe operation of longer freight trains,” said a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). The report was published for the public on July 1 but it was made available to Congress in May.

Proponents of longer trains say they help the Class I railroads achieve operating efficiencies such as enabling more fuel-efficient rail operations and decreasing the costs associated with the number of train crews. Longer trains can also help the railroads compete with trucks, and the rail companies have invested in capital projects to accommodate longer trains.

But some members of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure have brought the issue of longer trains to the forefront in recent months in response to concerns from local communities and emergency responders, who say that the longer trains increase the likelihood of blocked crossings.  

The GAO report recommended that the FRA develop a strategy to share its research results with stakeholders, as well as work with the railroads and state and local governments to identify where train operations might impact local communities at rights-of-way, or places where streets and highways cross railroad tracks, and determine how to reduce those impacts.

“Without documented strategies for how it plans to communicate the results of its research, FRA may lose an opportunity to effectively work with internal and external stakeholders – such as railroads, rail workers and local communities – to address any risks of operating longer trains in support of the agency’s mission of enabling the safe, efficient and reliable transportation of people and goods,” the report said.

The report continued, “WIthout examining the potential impacts of longer trains on local communities, including on blocked grade crossings, FRA may lose an opportunity to identify what, if any, additional actions should be taken to ensure the safety of longer trains and the communities through which they travel.”

In response to the report, an FRA spokesperson said the agency “continues to evaluate whether there are any rail-centric operational risks associated with very long freight trains, the impetus for GAO’s audit. Simultaneously, FRA continues to devote significant resources toward the issue of blocked highway-rail grade crossings, a matter typically addressed by states, local communities and railroads.”

The FRA also said Administrator Ron Batory has written letters to the leaders of over 160 railroads asking them to: assess their rail operations and determine appropriate actions to minimize blocked crossings; consider train length when stopping trains with any part of the train occupying a crossing (or multiple crossings) and whether the train’s location may potentially impede normal motor vehicle traffic and emergency response vehicles; and strategically establish the locations of crew changes, inspections and other operational needs to minimize the occurrence and duration of blocked crossings. 

The FRA also is seeking federal approval for wider data collection on instances of blocked crossings and it is developing a way to collect information electronically via the FRA website and on web applications.

And the FRA is seeking public comments through August on how it should proceed with data collection on blocked crossings. The FRA said its Office of Railroad Safety has received 669 email complaints about blocked crossings over a two-year period spanning April 1, 2017 to March 31, 2019.

Beyond longer trains

The FRA is currently studying what operational safety risks might occur with longer trains, according to the GAO report. That research, to be conducted in two phases with completion dates in 2020 and 2021, will look at how train makeup and handling, including the use of distributed power units, which the railroads place throughout the train to spread out the forces that are used to propel the train forward. The research will also study crew training and fatigue, as well as the braking performance of longer trains. 

But the FRA isn’t planning on using its findings to inform agency research on blocked crossings, even though state and local officials have expressed concern that the potential for blocked crossings could grow alongside the use of longer trains, the report said. Meanwhile, a number of states have sought to address blocked crossings but they face preemption under federal law.

“Federal internal control standards state that effective use of information and communication are vital for an entity to achieve its objectives. These standards call for management to use quality information – relevant, reliable information that is current, complete, accurate, accessible and timely – to achieve an agency’s objectives and respond to risks,” the report said.

Furthermore, there are other related studies that complement the FRA’s research on the safety measures involved with running longer trains, and the FRA should make those results more visible as well, the report said.

Among them, the FRA has said it will start in-depth audits of the Class I railroads’ training programs for locomotive engineers, including whether the railroads’ training programs adequately address how engineers respond to operating longer trains in challenging terrain. 

The FRA also hasn’t updated its strategic plan for research and development, which could aid in helping the FRA disseminate its research results. The most recent report was for fiscal years 2013 through 2017. The FRA has said it expects to finalize an update this summer, according to the GAO report. 

Last of all, the FRA began the rulemaking process to issue a risk reduction rule, but the rule has yet to be finalized, the report said.That rule required the Class I railroads to identify and mitigate risks through their own risk reduction programs, and the FRA would review and approve those programs.

Lawmakers respond to the report

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), who asked the GAO in November 2017 to conduct the study on longer trains, said the report “raises a big question about why there is a lack of data about how long trains impact public safety,” including how they affect blocked crossings and the ability of emergency responders to reach requests for aid and whether a locomotive engineer has sufficient training to operate a longer train. 

“I strongly urge the Federal Railroad Administration to take the recommendations seriously,” DeFazio said. He is also chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. 

Rep. Daniel Lipinksi (D-Illinois), who is chair of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, also raised the question of needing more data.

“While I understand the economic benefits of longer trains, those cannot be at the expense of community safety and quality of life for commuters. The FRA needs to start collecting data on the impact of these longer trains,” Lipinski said.

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