US: Rail freight brings concrete measures to reduce accidents

US: Rail freight brings concrete measures to reduce accidents
@Sophia Simoes on Unsplash

The railway industry will install approximately 1,000 new detectors, expand support for first responders, and initiate actions based on preliminary NTSB recommendations.

This week, the US National Transportation Safety Board announced the launch of a special investigation into Norfolk Southern Railway's organization and safety culture. Since December 2021, the NTSB has opened investigations into five significant Norfolk Southern accidents. Given the number and significance of the recent accidents, Norfolk Southern is expected to take immediate action to review and evaluate its safety practices and make the necessary changes to improve safety.

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) also announced seven steps it is taking to achieve a future of zero accidents and injuries and to prevent a repeat of what happened in East Palestine. The rules are to be adopted by all seven Class I freight railroads in the United States, the only ones with annual revenues of more than $500 million.

“Healthy railroads are essential to the U.S. economy, and consistently and reliably safe operations are essential to healthy railroads,” said Association of American Railroads (AAR) President and CEO Ian Jefferies. “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.”

Among the measures announced by the AAR, the railroads have agreed to continue installing hot bearing detectors (HBDs) on their key routes with the goal of achieving an average spacing of 15 miles, except where the route is equipped with acoustic bearing detection or other similar technology. This will mean the deployment of approximately 1 000 new HBDs. Non-functioning HBDs on key routes will generate critical incident reports and will be prioritized for repair without undue delay. The Class I railroads have committed to stop trains and inspect bearings whenever the HBD temperature reading exceeds 170° above ambient temperature. This action establishes a new industry standard for stopping trains and inspecting bearings. 

The next preventive step is to analyze trend data from multiple HBDs. This may reveal a bearing problem before the absolute temperature threshold is reached. Class I railroads are also joining the FRA's voluntary program to supplement their own confidential safety problem reporting programs. Training first responders in local communities across the country to help mitigate the effects of accidents will also be an integral part of prevention. By 2023, the railway will have trained around 20,000 people. 

Another measure is a plan to extend access to the AskRail app to all first responders. AskRail is an app that provides real-time information about the contents of each car on a train and how to safely handle those contents in the event of an accident. In response to the NTSB safety advisory warning of "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,” the AAR Tank Car Committee is accelerating the work of a special task force that has been investigating the use of heat-resistant gaskets on tanks carrying flammable liquids.

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