House T & I Committee Reviews Freight Rail Hazards

On Thursday, January 18th, the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials met to discuss the oversight of railroad grade crossing elimination and safety issues. The subcommittee called on a panel of four witnesses to provide insights on railroad grade crossings and other issues related to general railroad safety. 

Witness List: 

Amit Bose, Administrator, Federal Railroad Administration 

Jennifer Homendy, Chair, National Transportation Safety Board 

Ian Jefferies, President and CEO, Association of American Railroads 

Michael Smith, Commissioner, Indiana Department of Transportation 

 The hearing comes at a time when railroads are receiving increased attention not only in the transportation sector but with the general public. There has been a resurgence in federal funding and public interest over railroad projects including California high speed rail, Brightline in Florida, the Gulf Coast Corridor project, and the Gateway project in New York and New Jersey. Some of these projects are part of Amtrak’s vision for the future of passenger rail. 

However, several high-profile railroad incidents have raised voices of concern about safety. The Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio in February of 2023 caused immense economic loss and drastically impacted the lives of East Palestine residents. A derailment of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief in Mendon, Missouri in 2022 resulted in four deaths and 146 injuries. Train derailments are not new, but the increased attention on railroad safety has prompted discussions about safety standards, gaps in the system, and the role of federal, state, and local government as well as private railroad companies and other entities in working towards a safer railroad environment.  

The passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) in 2021 provided historic investments in the rail sector. Among the grant programs under the IIJA include the Railroad Crossing Elimination Grant program, which provides discretionary funding for at-grade railroad crossing improvements with a focus on improving the safety and mobility of people and freight. At-grade railroad crossings (or highway-rail grade crossings) are points at which roads and streets meet the railroad at the same level. It is a point of direct interaction between road vehicles and railroad locomotives and rolling stock.  

The Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) program is another IIJA grant program focused on improving safety and reliability of freight and passenger rail. 

As indicated by Subcommittee Chair Troy. Nehls (R-TX), there are around 112,000 at-grade railroad crossings and in 2022, there was an estimated 2,200 grade crossing-related incidents. These include collisions or derailments that can result in economic damage, delays, injuries, and unfortunately, fatalities. As the direct point of interaction between the road and rails, at-grade crossings can be very dangerous and pose a safety risk. The first round of funding awards through the Railroad Crossing Elimination grant program saw $570 million in awards for 63 projects in 32 states, addressing safety issues at over 400 at-grade railroad crossings.   

Subcommittee Ranking Member Donald Payne Jr. (D-NJ) noted that the hearing was long overdue, given the number of railroad safety issues in recent years. Regarding grade crossings, Payne noted that the recent video showing school children crawling under a stopped freight train at a grade crossing just to get to school is an indication of the dangerous risk grade crossings can pose and the sense of urgency for Congress to not only hold a hearing on railroad safety but propose legislation. Full Committee Ranking Member Rep. Larsen (D-WA) echoed the sentiment, adding that in 2022, there were around 22,000 reports of blocked crossings, and he emphasized the need to address the issue.  

The witness testimonies added to the conversation on rail safety issues. In each testimony, witnesses pointed to the risks and opportunities associated with grade crossings. FRA Administrator Bose highlighted the increase in FRA’s Outreach division staff and doubling of at-grade crossing inspectors as part of the agency’s efforts to prioritize local engagement and safety. Also, Bose pointed to rulemakings on crew sizes, certification of signal employees, locomotive recording devices, and safety advisories and bulletins. 

NTSB Chair Homendy indicated three areas for safety improvement: Design, technology, and worker safety. In design, the best grade crossing is no grade crossing, and a full grade separation is the best way to ensure the safety of the railroad and the street. Grade crossing elimination is not always an option, so upgrading passive crossings to active crossings or improved signage are also design elements. Investing in emerging technologies is key to help drivers be alert about railroad crossing. Finally, worker safety includes investing in positive train control, and ensuring that workers receive the necessary benefits and protections they deserve. 

INDOT Commissioner Smith provided insights regarding Indiana’s efforts to improve railroad safety. Smith pointed to the Local Trax Rail Overpass Program as an example of significant state investment in closing crossings, creating grade separation, and upgrading passive at-grade crossings to active at-grade crossings.  

Notwithstanding the significant railroad safety concerns that served as the focus of the hearing, both Homendy and Jefferies noted that rail transportation is safer (and cleaner) across many performance measures, compared to the nation’s roadways.  

During the period of questions, representatives and witnesses touched on a variety of topics including rail safety issues, NTSB recommendations, local engagement, federal funding issues, and regulatory issues.  

Rail Safety Issues 

At-Grade Crossings 

Throughout the hearing, representatives called on witnesses to provide explanations and insights into the risks grade crossings pose. Chair Nehls pointed out that Texas has a sizeable chunk of reported grade-crossing issues, and inquired into what explains such a high number of incidents. Administrator Bose noted that a collective effort between the FRA, railroads, law enforcement, and the local community is key in improving grade-crossing safety. Bose pointed to FRA efforts in Houston to address at-grade crossing issues as an example of the kind of work being done in Texas to address safety issues.  

Rep. Andre Carson (D-IN) voiced concerns over the at-grade crossings as locations where long trains will sit for a long time, blocking school traffic, commuters, or even emergency services. Delaying trucks can slow down the supply chain and overall, blocked crossings represent a serious safety hazard for communities across the country. In response, Administrator Bose suggested that it was a good time to reflect on the length of trains. The FRA has released an advisory on train length and Bose indicated that the lack of legislation on blocked crossings is perhaps an issue for Congress to consider. Jefferies agreed, noting that a blocked crossing does not do any good for anybody. But Jefferies did indicate that many trains are less than 7500 feet long. Jeffries further acknowledged the impact of the shift toward intermodal container cars, which are longer than the traditional coal cars that served as a staple of the railroads in previous decades.   

Rep. Chuy Garcia (D-IL) added to conversation, asking about the high number of blocked crossing issues in Illinois. Administrator Bose said that the FRA is committed to its attention to grade-crossing project applications, emphasizing safety as the guiding principle behind the Railroad Crossing elimination and CRISI programs. Jefferies and Homendy echoed the challenges of at-grade crossings and the importance of implementing innovative strategies to address safety. Regarding innovation, Bose stated that the FRA is working to advance innovation in grade crossing safety through research and collaboration, in response to Rep. Thomas Kean (R-NJ).  

Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) expressed skepticism over the idea of at-grade crossing eliminations. The Representative was concerned that it is not realistic to invest in eliminations, especially when doing so could cut farmers off by blocking paths with dedicated track. Administrator Bose and Chair Homendy noted that in the case of Mendon, Missouri, the rural grade crossing did pose a safety hazard to the farmers. Homendy mentioned that elimination is not always the option. While grade separation is beneficial, there are other strategies like upgrading passive crossings to active crossings that can improve safety.   

Wheel and Braking Systems 

Several representatives inquired about a pending waiver expansion request regarding the Brake Health Effectiveness Program. Railroads are using a technology that measures the temperature of car wheels to ensure that braking systems are working properly. Several representatives noted that this technology is more effective than the visual inspection from railway workers since the technology measures braking as the train is moving. Representatives inquired about when the FRA would approve the waiver expansion request. Administrator Bose addressed this issue multiple times, noting that the technology is already in use, and emphasized that technology should be used alongside worker visual inspections. In response to Rep. Valerie Foushee (D-NC) on wheel and braking systems monitoring, Bose noted that it is not just about having the technology but acting on the information provided. The administrator later, in response to Rep. Eric Burlison (R-MO) that railroad workers are working tirelessly to ensure the safe operations of trains. Railroad workers inspecting trains possess a critical skill set and their role in railroad operations should not be disrespected. Bose added that there is an opportunity to address rail safety with the Railway Safety Act, and Congress can act on this opportunity by approving the legislation.  

Additional Issues 

Rep. Rouzer (R-NC) brought up a concern over substance abuse as a factor in at-grade crossing incidents. Chair Homendy noted that while the NTSB has not tracked trends relating to that concern, the issue is important, and the NTSB is behind the curve on it. (NHTSA and CDC compile and report on impaired driving trends).   

Other safety issues included illegal immigration via railroads and the closing of rail lines as a result, in response to recent border crossing closures at El Paso and Eagle Pass, TX which prompted calls from Union Pacific and BNSF to reopen the lines. Energy transport also emerged as a topic of discussion. Along with pipelines, energy products are also transported by rail, which raises issues about transporting energy products safely and securely in the proper rolling stock. Additionally, several representatives inquired about the Confidential Close Call Reporting System, which allows railroad employees to report unsafe conditions. Class I railroads have expressed interest but have not joined the program.  

NTSB Safety Recommendations 

Chair Homendy expressed concerns in her witness testimony over the dozens of open safety recommendations put forth by the NTSB, and the lack of response to them. On several occasions, Homendy discussed safety recommendations and the trends they address. Investigating worker fatigue is important according to Homendy, and she called on the FRA to implement a rule on obstructive sleep apnea, which contributes to worker fatigue. Responding to Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) and Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), Homendy outlined numerous safety recommendations including: 

  • appropriate training for first responders 
  • phasing out old DOT-111 tank cars 
  • redefining high hazardous flammable trains 
  • Looking at FAA Safety Management System as a model 
  • Improved grade crossing signage; and  
  • Improved communication between state and local governments.  
  • Engagement with local communities 

In response to a question from Chuy Garcia regarding what Congress can do to better support workers and improve safety, Homendy stated that Congress can implement NTSB recommendations. Homendy’s response was blunt and to the point: “Implement them.” 

Local Engagement 

Throughout the hearing, witnesses returned to the theme of local and community engagement. Talking to local officials and the public is key to spreading awareness about railroad safety. Jefferies noted that Operation Lifesaver is a key organization in spreading awareness to the public on railroad safety. There is historic federal funding present, but the task at hand, as noted by the witnesses, is getting the resources to the local governments, and providing local governments with the expertise to access federal funds.  

Rep. Yakym (R-IN) engaged with Commissioner Smith on the efforts to address rail safety in Indiana. The Local Trax Rail Overpass program is a great benefit to local communities, according to Smith, noting that local communities have power to drive the process through local input.  

Federal Funding 

Chair Nehls and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) inquired about the lack of a Notice of Funding Opportunity for the Railroad Grade Crossing Elimination program in FY2023. In response, Administrator Bose stated that the FRA is working to get that out as quickly as possible. 

Several representatives including Reps. Babin, David Rouzer (R-NC), Pete Stauber (R-MN), and Marcus Molinaro (R-NY) expressed concerns over funding through the CRISI program. They noted that short line railroads are having to compete with larger passenger rail projects for funding. They urged the FRA to be fair in its review of applications and attentive to the needs of short lines, which benefit from the CRISI program. In a recent round of CRISI funding, short lines did receive $720 million in awards for 47 projects in 36 states.  

Witnesses provided insights into the importance of continued funding for railroad safety investments. In response to Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-CA) on what more needs to be done to ensure projects are built quickly, Administrator Bose said that consistent funding for programs is key so that actors are certain that funding is available, and the FRA can create a pipeline of projects.  

Chair Homendy mentioned that the NTSB has 437 employees with a budget of $129.3 million. Homendy voiced appreciation for the approval of NTSB reauthorization but noted frustration in the Continuing Resolution (CR). Homendy stated that a CR is not a sustainable way to be funded and with it comes the constant demand for a full-year budget. She emphasized that the NTSB has an important safety mission and to carry out its mission requires the necessary resources to do so, which would be cut short with a CR.  

Federal Regulations 

Members raised concerns over a proposed rule mandating two crew members to operate a train, citing the impact hiring more crew could have on short lines. Additionally, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) noted that with the rise in autonomous technology, what was the need for mandating 2-person crews? Jefferies pointed out that there was little evidence to support a mandate on where people should be located, disagreeing with the proposed rule. 

A new emissions rule in California also came up in the conversation, which mandates a shift to low-emission locomotives away from diesel powered locomotives. Representatives noted that the rule could place pressure on short lines to invest in locomotives they cannot afford, driving some out of business. Jefferies echoed the concerns, questioning the legality of the rule and noting that 25 percent of short lines could go out of business and that results in more freight on roads instead of rail.  

Autonomous Technology 

In a last question, Ranking Member Payne asked about autonomous technology. Chair Homendy noted concern over the railroads being a testing space for autonomous technologies. She voiced concern over seeing a 2- or 3-mile-long train with no crew. In a derailment situation like the one in East Palestine, Homendy commended the efforts of the train crew in handling the train. She expressed hesitation in seeing a 149-car train, with a distributed power unit all without any crew member on board. 

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