The Federal Railroad Administration has issued a safety advisory that calls on freight railroads to look closely at how they configure freight trains, saying that train configuration or makeup might have been a cause or contributing factor in at least six derailments within the past two years.
Freight railroads take into account factors such as the placement of loaded and empty rail cars, as well as the placement of distributed power units (DPUs) throughout the train, in configuring trains. The way that trains are configured can affect the in-train forces that are put upon the train, according to FRA.
FRA wants to “emphasize significant concerns related to train makeup and to ensure that all railroads exercise due diligence and recognize the importance of taking proactive measures to address potential safety risks related to operating train builds,” the agency said in its advisory, which was signed by John Karl Alexy, FRA chief safety officer and associate administrator for railroad safety. The advisory was sent for inclusion into the Federal Register on Thursday.
The advisory comes as FRA, the National Transportation Safety Board, the broader rail industry and rail stakeholders such as unions, shippers and rail equipment manufacturers have been grappling with how to bolster rail safety and prevent derailments following the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio.
Although the NS derailment resulted in no known injuries, the derailment and the large gray cloud that formed after NS vented tank cars carrying vinyl chloride to prevent a worse catastrophe have rattled the local community and lawmakers.
The safety advisory alluded to six incidents in the past two years in which the makeup of the trains may have been a factor in causing a derailment: three involving Union Pacific trains in May 2021, February 2022 and September 2022, two involving Norfolk Southern trains in September 2022 and March 2023, and one involving a Kansas City Southern train in May 2022.
These derailments shared a number of characteristics: Each involved trains that consisted of 125 or more rail cars and utilized DPUs, which are intended to improve control of the train. Empty cars were the first to derail, and five of the six incidents involved mixed-freight trains, which typically have more complex train makeup considerations, FRA said.
The six incidents also involved trains that exceeded 4,000 trailing tons, which is the maximum weight threshold established by industry standards for mixed-merchandise trains traversing routes with a grade of less than 2% and a maximum track curvature of less than 8 degrees.
Five of the six trains also had rail cars carrying hazardous materials, and in three of the accidents, hazmat cars derailed, FRA continued. Three accidents resulted in a release of hazardous materials as well, while two accidents involved an evacuation of the local population. Furthermore, three accidents involved key trains, or those with a higher level of risk due to the cargo they carry or their operational characteristics, FRA said.
“Technologies such as DPUs, energy management systems, and dynamic braking can be used in conjunction with proper train car placement and makeup. While these technologies can improve train handling and fuel efficiency, they cannot replace the need for correct car placement and assembly,” FRA said.
“Railroads must prioritize proper train makeup to maintain safety, prevent accidents, and optimize train performance. Further, all operating employees must be properly trained in these technologies and the handling of complex trains to ensure safe operation and minimize human error.”
While the advisory didn’t specify whether any regulation would be forthcoming regarding findings from the investigation of these six accidents, FRA offered a list of “best practices,” which included:
- Reviewing and updating train makeup policies, procedures and guidelines.
- Ensuring sufficient training, guidance and supervision of the employees involved in deciding how to build a train.
- Creating a system that monitors and assesses train makeup practices on a regular basis, with an eye on keeping operations safe.
- Promoting an environment where all stakeholders, “including train crews, dispatchers, yardmasters and maintenance personnel,” understand the factors that prevent less desirable train makeups. “Personnel should be encouraged and empowered to adhere to train makeup policies, procedures, and guidelines, even if it delays a train,” FRA said.
- Developing strategies on the proper use of distributed power, train length limitations and other operational train handling practices, all of which could help mitigate the risks that come with building trains.
- Enhancing investigation procedures that address train makeup factors.
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