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Who regulates freight rail safety?

Since the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train near East Palestine, Ohio, congressional officials and politicians have been pushing initiatives to bolster the safe transport of freight goods via rail. But who are the federal agencies responsible for overseeing rail safety regulations? 

Just as the industry consists of not just the railroads but numerous stakeholders such as the equipment manufacturers, shippers and unions, there are also several federal-level agencies involved in ensuring freight rail safety. 

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), whose parent agency is the U.S. Department of Transportation, oversees the vast majority of safety regulations for both freight and passenger rail. These include everything from track safety standards to operating rules and practices to the use of locomotive horns at public highway-rail grade crossings.

The list of regulations that FRA oversees can be found here.

Sometimes FRA will consider topics that aren’t fully addressed in existing federal regulations. These topics, such as whether crews should have more than two people operating the train, go through the proposed rulemaking process so that FRA can determine whether or not to turn the proposals into regulations. The rulemaking process is the same other federal agencies use when proposing rules.

But FRA isn’t the only federal agency involved in regulating rail safety. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA) also has some oversight because some of the volumes the railroads carry are commodities that could fall under the hazardous materials category. That’s why PHMSA is involved in proposed regulations on the movement of liquefied natural gas by rail, for instance.

Rail-related regulations that PHMSA is responsible for include those for tank car specifications as well as guidelines for the inspection of rail cars. The list of regulations that PHMSA oversees can be found here. 

A third federal agency involved in managing rail safety regulations is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). TSA handles rules pertaining to the security of rail shipments. 

While these agencies handle the bulk of rail safety regulations, there are other players involved. Congress might also introduce bills and pass laws calling for adjustments or additions to existing rules, and Cabinet officials, such as the Transportation Secretary, might also advise the federal agencies and rail companies to adopt certain safety provisions.

Furthermore, states have also sought to introduce and pass laws that could relate to rail safety, such as those pertaining to train crew sizes and the movement of crude oil by rail. 

Rail safety beyond regulations

While the regulations the federal agencies oversee are legally binding, the freight rail industry also has established committees that examine, analyze and debate safety issues that might use existing rules as a jumping off point. These committees function as a way to discuss potential regulations before any language is proposed and codified. For example, the role of human inspections amid the growing use of automated track inspection has been an ongoing discussion at the industry committee level.

Some of these committees also set standards higher than the thresholds and guidelines established in the existing federal regulations. These standards may be more exhaustive and comprehensive than what exists in the federal code. The benefit to having these standards is that they can be more easily modified and adopted to factor in new developments.

These committees, such as FRA’s Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) and the tank car committee affiliated with the Association of American Railroads, consist of various members within the industry. RSAC’s membership consists of those working for the railroads, rail equipment manufacturers, shippers’ groups and unions.

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Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.

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