US FRA Issues Safety Advisory for Passenger Train Operations

In continuing fallout from several recent passenger train accidents including fatality accidents on New York’s Metro-North commuter system and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor Service, both of which incidents have been alleged to have had apparent contributing factors of excessive speed entering curves, the US Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) today issued a formal Safety Advisory (SA: 2015-03) which directs qualifying railroads to take further steps to reduce the risk of such accidents in the future.  Among other things the new action calls for passenger railroads to:

Identify locations where there is a reduction of more than 20 mph from the approach speed to a curve or bridge and the maximum authorized operating speed for passenger trains at that curve or bridge.

Modify Automatic Train Control (ATC) systems (if in use) to ensure compliance with speed limits.

If the railroad does not use ATC, ensure that all passenger train movements through the identified locations be made with a second qualified crew member in the cab of the controlling locomotive, or with constant communication between the locomotive engineer and an additional qualified and designated crewmember in the body of the train.

Install additional wayside signage alerting engineers and conductors of the maximum authorized passenger train speed throughout the passenger railroad’s system, with particular emphasis on additional signage at the identified locations.

Here is a link to the brand new Safety Advisory:

This action comes on top of previous emergency orders which places limits on train speeds in curves and other areas which pose a greater than average risk of potential speed related incidents.  (See FRA Emergency Orders (EO) 29 and 31 and Safety Advisory SA 2013-08)

Why is this important to shippers?

To a very large degree, passenger trains in the United States operate over track that is typically owned, maintained, and dispatched by a freight carrier railroad.  The overwhelming majority of dangerous goods carried by rail in the US and Canada is so carried by only six Class One (or very large) railroads; Union Pacific, BNSF, Norfolk Southern, CSX, Canadian Pacific, and Canadian National.  All of these carriers also host or else operate under contract a variety of commuter, corridor, and long-distance passenger service trains.  These trains typically move at much higher speeds than do freight trains.

The industry has already been placed under no small pressure account the many actions taken by the FRA in reference to the carriage of dangerous goods—this nearly all related to the 2013 oil train derailment disaster in Lac Megantic, Quebec in Canada.  Some of these actions have resulted in ordered speed reductions for trains carrying dangerous goods, principally those classified as flammable liquids.  The recent FRA EO’s and SA’s related to passenger train activity will add yet another layer of complexity and almost certainly in practical terms an average reduction in train velocity over the systems.

On a railroad, average velocity is a direct impactor to cost of transport.  While one may see a particular freight train flying over a grade crossing at fifty or better miles per hour, average velocity takes into account numerous other factors such as terminal dwell time, switching, interchange and transfer operations, delays due to interference, etc—every factor that impacts the speed of a particular car of freight over a railroad between its origin and destination.  Most North American railroads have current average velocities of between eighteen and twenty five miles per hour.  While this does not sound fast on the face of it, it is literally an order of magnitude faster than such velocities were a generation ago.

Any decrease in average velocity increases costs.  Why?  The lower the average system velocity, the less the capacity of the system to host and/or effectively operate traffic.  There is only so much track; only so many locomotives and qualified train operating crews.  If more trains move more slowly (again, as a system average), then it takes more of everything to move the same amount of freight.  That takes more time, and that takes more money.  The result is increased costs to shippers.  Unfortunately, many busy passenger hubs that will face the highest potential mandated reduction in speeds in reference to this subject are also overlaid on top of some of the nation’s busiest freight train corridors—Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, New York, etc.  In some ways it represents a perfect storm in regards to its potential to negatively impact average velocity.  The monitoring, study, and reporting requirements that many of these FRA actions have imposed will also add costs.  Those costs will all move downstream.

While shippers may have limited ability to directly act to mitigate the impact of this situation on their operating costs or the time their shipment may spend in transport, they can do a few things to better control the factors that they can directly impact:

  • Verify that any lading offered for transport to a railroad or any other carrier is correctly and safely packaged, labeled, placarded, marked, and has any required accompanying paperwork as appropriate. This lessens the chance that the load may be stopped in transit for further inspection.
  • Shippers with privately owned track and sidings can ensure that such infrastructure is well maintained and secure, lessening the risk of delay or danger due to incident.
  • Train operating personnel to correctly and safely operate their equipment and work spaces and to recognize the unique dangers that accompany rail operations.
  • Establish and maintain a good communications relationship with the carrier railroad(s); often cost increases can be lessened with prompt action or at the least, knowledge of increases can help with planning the most effective response.
  • Stay informed of the changes that the industry faces through resources like this.

The simple fact is that recent accidents on both the freight and passenger side of the railroad business appear to have both infrastructure and human factors as contributing causes.  The very tragic fatalities involved have both made the business far more politically visible than it has been for some time and has also energized the FRA to take very strong mitigating regulatory action with less regard for downstream costs than has previously been the typical case.  Railroads and shippers alike face increased complexity and costs; at this point it is more a case of riding the new wave rather than attempting to wait for it to pass—that seems an unlikely outcome for the foreseeable future.

Labelmaster offers a wide variety of products and services that can assist shippers of dangerous goods, and staffs an expert team of regulatory specialists and consultants that have knowledge and an ability to help across the spectrum of the logistics field.  Whether via road, rail, aircraft, or vessel, we can provide effective and cost-friendly assistance.  Please take a look at what we can do for you by visiting us at today!










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