House Lawmakers Debate Freight Rail Labor and Safety Issues

House Lawmakers Debate Freight Rail Labor and Safety Issues

June 17, 2022  | Ethan McLeod

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee this week held a wide-ranging hearing with railroad regulators, labor leaders, and industry executives and stakeholders about safety issues affecting the country’s 140,000-mile freight rail network. The Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials hosted the hearing, whose topic was “Examining Freight Rail Safety.” Members and witnesses discussed how new infrastructure funding, changes in regulations, and Congressional action might improve freight railroad safety for workers and communities. 

The hearing took place against a backdrop of a trend of declining railroad safety nationwide, as detailed by the Eno Center for Transportation in its September 2021 “Safer Railroading” report. Rail remains among the safest transportation modes in the country today, and historically made significant safety-related gains during the 1990s and 2000s, including a 45 percent reduction in railroad-related fatalities from 1992 to 2012. But those trends have been reversing in recent years, with a 31 percent rise in fatalities from 2012 to 2019. 

The June 14 hearing also highlighted ongoing concerns about understaffed railroads, particularly Class I operators that have shed approximately one-third of their workers since 2015. It pitted testimony from concerned labor representatives and members of Congress critical about the stage of freight rail against large railroad operators, who say they are trying to provide the most efficient service possible and expect technology and automation will help to improve safety outcomes over time. 

Witnesses, split into two panels over three hours, included: 

  • Amit Bose, FRA Administrator 
  • Thomas Chapman, Member, National Transportation Safety Board 
  • Roy Morrison, Director of Safety, Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division, International Brotherhood of Teamsters 
  • Don Grissom, Assistant General President, Brotherhood of Railway Carmen Division, TCU/IAM 
  • Grady Cothen, Retired, Transportation Policy Consultant 
  • Nathan Bachman, Vice President of Sales and Business Development, Loram Technologies Inc. 
  • Cindy Sanborn, Executive Vice President and COO, Norfolk Southern Corporation, and Chair, Safety and Operations Management Committee, Association of American Railroads 
  • Jeremy Ferguson, President, Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, Transportation – Transportation Division 

Crew Size 

With Bose sitting front and center, some lawmakers and industry representatives criticized a proposed new rule from the Biden administration that would require Class I railroads to have at least two crew members per cab locomotive in freight trains. Bose noted the Obama administration proposed such a rule in 2016, but it was withdrawn during the Trump administration under his predecessor, Ronald Batory. FRA announced in fall 2021 that it was once again pursuing a proposed rule, with anticipated publication of the initial proposal scheduled for February 2022. That schedule slipped, and the proposed rule was sent to the White House for review on March 10, 2022 and is still pending there.

The Biden Administration’s resumption of the effort was met with cheers from labor unions that support such a change, saying it could improve safety for workers. Presently, collective bargaining agreements between most major railroads and labor unions require two-person crews, and nine states have passed legislation mandating such minimums. However, there is no federal rule governing crew sizes, and railroads have been pushing against mandates, arguing positive train control and future innovations reduce the need for multiple crew members.  

Rep. Rick Crawford (R-AK), the subcommittee’s ranking Republican, and Rep. Tim Burchett (R-TN) both criticized the renewed push as one of simply fulfilling campaign promises that could also increase operating costs for railroads and lacks data to substantiate the need. Burchett expressed concerns about “forcing small businesses to hire folks that they really don’t need,” particularly short-line carriers. Bose responded that the rule proposed in 2016 would have allowed smaller railroads to maintain one-person crews if they could provide justification, and suggested the latest proposal could do the same. He said the FRA woud seek a “robust set of comments” once the White House frees it up for publication, and hopes to share more research about safety implications. 

The American Association of Railroads has spoken out against such a rule change, saying crew-size minimums could become obsolete with new technology allowing for more automation on trains. During the second panel, Sanborn, of Norfolk Southern, said there is no evidence one-person-crew trains have higher rates of accidents than those with two crew members. She said such a shift in operating mandates could make railroads less competitive than other transport modes like trucks thanks to increased operating costs. Ferguson, president of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, Transportation-Transportation Division, later retorted, “railroads have no idea what will happen if they reduce crew size, but it’s a gamble they are willing to take for the sake of satisfying their insatiable appetite of improving their company’s bottom line.” 

(Ed. Note: The railroads insist that crew size minimums be set during collective bargaining, which is also showing some movement this week – see article elsewhere in today’s issue of ETW.)

Worker Fatigue 

The hearing took place one day after the FRA published a proposed rule requiring Class I railroads, as well as carriers identified as having “inadequate safety performance” and those that offer intercity rail passenger or commuter rail service, to adopt fatigue management plans as part of larger system safety and risk reduction programs that the FRA will review annually. Critics have pointed to Class I railroads’ widespread adoption of precision-scheduled railroading in 2015 as a cause for reduced staffing, longer shifts and shortened inspection times for cars, despite railways running longer, more cargo-packed trains for the sake of efficiency. 

Union representatives during the hearing complained of workers taking on 16-hour shifts due to understaffing and then sleeping in cars because they lack enough time to return home to rest before working again which they said increases safety risks. In response to a question about long shifts from Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-IL), Grissom, whose union represents railway car men, said railroads do not take the matter seriously. As an example, he pointed to CSX managers who union members allege have declined to accept reported complaints about unsafe conditions from workers who were pushed to work more than 16 hours straight. 

Chapman, of the NTSB, said the scope of the FRA’s existing hours-of-service regulations are limited to workers directly involved in the movement of trains, but not roadway workers for rail carriers. The NTSB has pushed the FRA to extend that scope, but the agency said it does not have legal authority to do so. Chapman asked that Congress help to clarify the FRA’s authority. 

Bose noted that the agency has conducted a survey of engineers and conductors about fatigue that drew over 10,000 responses, and the results are currently being analyzed. He said the proposal of a new fatigue management system rule for carriers was the result of “a hole” in the previous FRA administration’s safety program that did not require railroads to consult with workers, which the agency will now require under the new rule. 

CRISI Grants

Lawmakers were particularly focused on IIJA funding mechanisms to improve rail safety. Several brought up the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grant program, for which USDOT this month announced $368 million in grants for 46 projects across 32 states plus DC. The IIJA expands funding for CRISI to $1 billion annually for the next five fiscal years, or roughly triple fiscal 2021 funding levels, which provides funding to railroads and other grantees to upgrade infrastructure and improve safety. 

Rep. Pete Stauber (R-MN) and Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-MA) both asked Bose about the FRA’s commitment to continuing to support the program, which they said is particularly important for short line railroads to upgrade track, bridges, and tunnels to make networks more efficient. Bose said the agency remains committed to CRISI and has found its grants “go a lot further” for short line operators than larger carriers. He noted such investments in bridges and carrying capacity for short lines can also help them addressing national supply chain challenges. Stauber asked that the FRA invite local communities to become more involved in designing these improvements and understanding grant application processes. 

Grade Crossings 

Multiple legislators spoke about addressing grade crossings, citing specific constituent issues from towns in their districts. Grade crossings and trespassing incidents accounted for 97 percent of railway fatalities in 2019, despite making up just 29 percent of all railroad safety incidents that year. 

While train length is not associated with collisions at grade crossings, several pointed to long trains, sometimes stretching more than two miles — a recent trend associated with railroads implementing precision-scheduled railroading — that can lead to hours of blocked grade crossings for communities along railroads. Rep. Troy Carter (D-LA) said this can negatively affect quality of life for residents and commerce and asked how the FRA can help such communities. Garcia also asked about the FRA’s community outreach process. Bose said the FRA’s field inspectors must be present to answer communities’ questions and noted the IIJA includes multiple mechanisms to help fund safety improvements for grade crossings. These include: 

  • CRISI grants; 
  • An increase in the Federal Highway Administration’s $245 million per year “section 130” program’s federal cap for state incentives to local governments to close grade crossings, from $7,500 to $100,000 (one of Eno’s recommendations from its September report); and
  • $600 million per year in annual funding from the IIJA for a new FRA-administered Railroad Crossing Elimination Program for the next five years. 

FRA will soon put out a notice of funding opportunities for the new crossing elimination program and will host webinars to educate communities about how to apply. 

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