FRA awards SMART-TD over $600,000 to fill void in rail carriers’ training programs

September 29, 2023

It’s easy to levy criticism at the training programs run by the railroad carriers in 2023. But as we all know, criticism is meaningless without action.

SMART Transportation Division is doing more than talking about the decline in the quality and quantity of training new hire railroaders receive. As leaders in rail labor, we work to arm ourselves with the tools needed to address training shortfalls rather than wait for the railroads to do the right thing.

Last week, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) awarded SMART-TD $602,227.35 to continue our mission to get our members the training they need to safely perform their duties as railroad professionals.

The award was granted through FRA’s Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) program. This is the first award of its kind to a rail labor organization and a clear indication from FRA Administrator Amit Bose and the Biden administration that they view SMART-TD as a true partner in the mission to improve rail safety and a union with innovative ideas and plans worth investing in.

SMART-TD has proactively provided tools such as SMART University to help enhance organizational training opportunities for our members and officers at every level of our organization. In addition, our Regional Training Seminars bring educational opportunities closer to home for those who want to learn more about their union and the way the industry works. This grant will allow the financial means to further expand these platforms to include job duty best practices, and other safety sensitive training.  

The training project these federal dollars are going toward is known as the Data Driven Safety Training and Education for Front-Line Railroad Workers. Led by SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson and his department, in collaboration with SMART-TD’s National Legislative Director Greg Hynes and Alt. National Legislative Director Jared Cassity, they’re on a mission to restructure the role of training rail workers.

“Every railroader has his/her own opinion on what needs to be done to fix the industry. But one thing all of us agree on is that the training programs are not even close to reflecting how dangerous or important rail jobs are.” President Ferguson said. He went on to frame the grant award as a vote of confidence in SMART’s ability to provide leadership in this arena. “If I had to sum up my reaction, I would say that Department of Transportation (DOT) leadership and President Biden see the dangerous trajectory this industry is on. Training is fundamental to a safe workplace, not just for our members but for the public, too. The East Palestine disaster and the fact that there are more than three major derailments a day in this nation is a testament to the need for a fundamental change, and proof that the status quo is clearly not working. They recognize that there is a better solution by investing in SMART-TD and our vision of training.”

New-hire training for all Class I railroads has been in the crosshairs of FRA Administrator Amit Bose in the past year in conjunction with an intense national focus on railroad safety. Bose has called for a complete audit of Norfolk Southern’s training program and has even gone as far as rejecting their program in its entirety and giving hard deadlines to redesign it from the ground up.

CSX has had very public struggles with their training programs this year as well, including two trainee fatalities that prompted scrutiny from SMART-TD as well as the FRA. As all our members coast to coast know, the bare-bones training approach of the Class I railroads is not exclusive to any one carrier. Some of the freight carriers are participating in a race to the bottom by cutting corners, at the expense of training, to fill self-inflicted employment shortages as quickly as possible. 

In addition to supplementing the training of our members, this grant project is also tasked with providing our brothers and sisters on commuter and passenger rail a heightened level of training in preventing assaults in their workspace. As the grant proposal states in the project summary, -”

“As our transit and commuter rail members know all too well, their carriers and agencies have failed to provide the operational changes and training necessary to keep our members safe. That is unacceptable. We take this seriously and know that more is required, especially as the assault rates continue to climb,” Alt. Legislative Director Cassity said. “With this grant, SMART-TD will once again pick up the slack for the gaps in the carriers’ training. If the companies can’t keep our people safe, we’re damn well going to do it ourselves.”

SMART-TD is honored and excited to have this opportunity to work with FRA to take a greater level of control in the training regimen of our members. As the training is developed and rolled out, SMART-TD will keep you informed on the progress being made.

President Ferguson wanted to give special recognition for winning this grant to SMART-TD Director of Administration Matt Dolin. “He deserves our thanks for securing this grant. He went above and beyond the call of duty to make this a reality,” Ferguson said. “When this program is all said and done, Matt’s efforts will have been leveraged into thousands of hours of safety training that would not have happened otherwise. There were a lot of moving parts in making this grant a reality, but Matt and his professionalism played a large role in realizing this funding.”