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NS, SMART-TD to hold off on conductor redeployment talks

Norfolk Southern and the union representing train conductors have tabled discussions on redeploying conductors and instead will focus on other measures to improve quality-of-life issues. 

This decision comes as congressional lawmakers have been busy considering what initiatives should be included in a rail safety bill.

NS (NYSE: NSC) and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers — Transportation Division (SMART-TD) are discontinuing formal negotiations on conductor redeployment in light of the narrowing window to hold such discussions. The parties had a mid-June deadline to negotiate the details per national agreement terms, but they instead will now focus on scheduling enhancements and other quality-of-life improvements. 

“Over the next year, SMART-TD and Norfolk Southern have the opportunity to work together to implement important predictability improvements for our conductor workforce,” SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said in a news release Thursday. “These scheduling enhancements, which were part of last year’s national agreements, have the potential to make an immediate positive impact for our conductors by giving them fixed days off and greater certainty about their weekly assignments. The willingness of NS to step back from plans to change to a ground-based conductor model is a welcome show of good faith in the negotiation process.”

NS and SMART-TD could still have opportunities to discuss conductor redeployment, but that would be done on a voluntary basis. 

NS had testified before the Federal Railroad Administration in December and discussed plans to redeploy the conductor to a grounds-based role where locations that might need attention could be driven to. NS had said then this change could offer conductors a more predictable schedule, which is something the broader industry has been pursuing as it seeks to attract the next generation of railroaders.

“Norfolk Southern is committed to working with labor partners, including SMART-TD, to identify and negotiate benefits that will have a meaningful impact on our employees’ quality of life,” said Wai Wong, NS vice president of labor relations, said in the news release. “While redeployment of conductors to ground-based shift work will provide more predictable jobs and minimize time away from home, there are a number of other priorities that our labor partners would like to address, and we are committed to working together to make immediate progress.”

Lawmakers seek to fine-tune initiatives in rail safety bill

NS’ top leader faced additional scrutiny from members of Congress this week about the railroad’s actions related to the Feb. 3 derailment of its train in East Palestine, Ohio.

CEO and president Alan Shaw was one of the witnesses testifying before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on Wednesday.

But unlike the March 10 hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in which Shaw testified and defended NS’ actions, much of the focus at the Wednesday hearing was on how to craft certain initiatives within the rail safety bill introduced by Ohio senators Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and J.D. Vance, a Republican.

Indeed, Vance and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, alluded to discussions with Shaw about what rail safety regulations should be adopted. Meanwhile, Shaw said he has been communicating with the leaders of the largest unions about the same thing.

One issue that lawmakers wanted to discuss with hearing witnesses was wayside detectors. 

Clyde Whitaker, legislative director for SMART-TD in Ohio, explained to the Senate committee that there are two types of defect defectors: the standard one that provides an audible alert to the train crew via a radio system and one that has technology added onto it that looks for trends in the data. 

For Whitaker, one of the problems associated with the Feb. 3 derailment was the train crew didn’t have access to the data collected by the trending detector. Instead, that detector conveys information to a remote office, where a staff assesses and then decides whether to alert train crews. Whitaker contended that the push to keep operations running under precision scheduled railroading causes the railroads to sometimes disregard alerts from those detectors. 

Notifying a train crew with that data “is feasible. The technology is there,” Whitaker said. 

Hearing witness Ian Jefferies, president of the Association of American Railroads (AAR), said continuous onboard detection represents the next phase of the industry’s broader look at best practices for deploying wayside detectors and potentially adapting new algorithms that focus on detecting trends. 

Railroads have also established an industry standard temperature of 170 degrees as a critical threshold for the wayside detectors, and the railroads are taking steps to deploy an additional 1,000 of the devices, according to Jefferies. 

Lawmakers hinted that requiring such real-time notification to train crews could be included in the rail safety bill. 

“If there’s a reason it’s not yet feasible, we need to know about it because that seems to be a reasonable element for legislation,” Cruz said.

Commerce committee chair Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, said: “We have to look at safety trends. We have to look at what’s coming at us because they are telling us in advance. That’s what technology can do: Tell us in advance where there is a problem. But we can’t ignore that because we want to make some more money.”

The broader issue of technology’s role in rail safety also arose several times during the hearing.

Senators and witnesses discussed the interplay between human inspections and those enhanced by technology, such as automated track inspection, and the idea that technology should complement — and not supplant — human inspections.

“We should not be putting safety on a timeline when inspecting rail cars,” said Whitaker when asked about whether rail regulation should include a time minimum to conduct a visual inspection. “We’re going through communities with hazardous materials and very unforgiving equipment.” 

When queried about how Congress can support the rail industry’s deployment of technology, Jefferies said a regulatory environment that promotes innovation is needed.

“[One] that promotes technology, promotes pilot programs, promotes new ways of doing things, allows you to build a data set. …” Jefferies said. “Let’s have the opportunity to experiment with things. Some technologies may not work out. Others may prove to have dramatic safety benefits. Let’s build the data sets that we can objectively analyze in partnership with the regulator to advance safety.”

Rail safety regulation could also include revising the definition of high-hazard flammable trains. 

There are two categories of high-hazard flammable trains: a unit train consisting of 20 loaded tank cars carrying a Class 3 flammable liquid in a continuous block and a mixed freight train consisting of 35 or more tank cars carrying a Class 3 flammable liquid dispersed throughout the train.

The current definition of a high-hazard flammable train should be “eliminated” and replaced with a more nuanced definition, said hearing witness Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board. 

“A broader array of hazmat should be in the definition [for a high-hazardous flammable train],” Homendy said.

Jefferies agreed, saying: “I think there’s a logical case to be made for a parallel requirement for trains carrying flammable gases as we currently have for flammable liquids. But it’s about taking a risk-based approach that doesn’t treat the entire class of commodities the same but focuses on what is a truly higher-risk train versus one that perceives little risk.”

The rail safety bill introduced by Brown and Vance features up to 12 new rules for any train moving one car of hazardous materials, but their type can vary greatly in terms of how they would react during a train accident. Applying the same level of restrictions to all hazardous materials would affect not only the rail industry but also rail shippers who move agricultural products, energy or intermodal, Jefferies said. Over 40% of trains also move at least one car of hazmat cargo.

Another aspect of the Bowen-Vance rail safety bill is phasing out DOT-111 tank cars sooner than 2029. 

When asked by Cantwell whether the rail industry supports a phaseout deadline of 2025, Jefferies said the industry does but questions whether rail car manufacturers can handle that due date. 

Cantwell also said regulators should consider setting up a trust fund that could help pay for emergency preparedness.

“This committee has dealt with the oil spill trust fund. …,” she said. “It literally is having the resources up front in a timely manner to have for a community. The challenge here is going to be how to do that and where to do that. But I think if we’re going to continue to move product like this and have this level of risk, we can’t just leave it up to volunteer firefighters on the front line. So, I do think we have to think about what is a way to put resources into the local community.”

Homendy responded that one program that lawmakers can look at is the hazardous materials emergency preparedness program of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which currently receives $28.3 million annually but could use more funding. That program is paid for by shippers and transporters of hazardous materials. 

Other actions by lawmakers

But the two Senate hearings aren’t the only places where lawmakers are discussing rail safety.

An Ohio delegation released its own version of a rail safety bill last week, while Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, sent a letter dated March 15 to NTSB’s Homendy asking the agency to expand its special investigation of NS’ safety culture and practices to all Class I railroads.

NTSB had said earlier this month that it would launch a special investigation into the safety culture at NS. The Federal Railroad Administration also plans to review NS’ safety practices.

“In the past five years, it is jarringly evident that the freight rail industry is in desperate need of a full and comprehensive investigation,” Schumer said in the letter. “I strongly urge you to expand your investigation into the safety practices of all Class I freight railroads operating throughout the country, including BNSF Railway, CSX, Union Pacific, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern, and issue findings, recommendations and regulations to improve rail safety across the country.”

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