SMART TD, TTD Set For Victory Over Carriers On Train Length Data Collection

February 1, 2024

For more than a century, the carriers’ lobbyists and lawyers have been paid very well for their ability to argue out of both sides of their mouths.

One of the battlefields where our union and the carriers have clashed since the onset of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) is the issue of recording the length of freight trains. In multiple cases where train length factored into the discussion, the carriers have defaulted to the excuse that there is no official data on average train length, and therefore our arguments cannot possibly have a basis in reality. They love to characterize our comments on these and other topics as entirely anecdotal and dismiss them altogether.

The flip side is that when it is proposed that train length data should be documented to fill that information gap, carriers often argue that we are infringing on their business, and that it is not practical for them to calculate that data. They conveniently say that they can’t be held accountable for statistics that are unknowable, and then are not eager to comply with requests to start keeping track of the data needed to do so.

As we all know, they already have that data. It’s on our work order in multiple places. We enter it into PTC, TO/Leader. It is displayed on the dispatchers’ screens so they can calculate train meets and what trains fit into what sidings. Until recently, on some railroads, the train length was even announced by wayside defect detectors until the trains got so long the axle counts triggered errors on the detectors and they reprogrammed them to stop calculating that statistic. Historically, the railroads have always tracked their train lengths. It would be a terrible business practice if they didn’t. They need this data when designing yards and sidings and for day-to-day decision making.

Like we said, they talk out of both sides of their mouths.

As anyone with railroad experience knows, the length and weight of a consist factors into most aspects of railroading and dramatically amplifies the risk factors we face in our daily tasks. Your union has been banging this drum as loudly as possible.

On January 19, it appears that we have finally turned the corner on this important issue.

In response to the conflict surrounding this hot issue, FRA Administrator Amit Bose and the Biden administration made an announcement the railroads have feared for years. Bose and the FRA put out a public notice in the Federal Register stating Class I freight railroads are one step closer to having to report the length of every train on their system by filling out two extra questions on a report the carriers are already required to provide to FRA.

In practice, if this ruling becomes final, it would not be a difficult lift for the railroads. It’s the equivalent of a few more keystrokes to enter. But the ramifications of having to give us and the public access to this data will be a tough pill for them to swallow.

The process required to force the railroads to begin sharing this data with the FRA involves two departments of the federal government signing off on it. First being the FRA, which happened January 19th. Next up is the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is part of the executive branch and answers to the White House.

In the first round of public comments where interested parties were invited to make their arguments for or against the new requirement to the FRA, the Association of American Railroads and other surrogates for these billion-dollar enterprises made the same arguments we had predicted. They stated that this new regulation would be overly burdensome, and that railroads should not be expected to provide this information.

SMART-TD and the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department (TTD) both stepped to the plate and countered these ridiculous arguments.

FRA informed AAR and the carriers they had lost this round of the fight in the Federal Register. In their decision notice, they quoted SMART-TD and the AFL-CIO TTD’s arguments as to why they made the decision they made. Our union is happy to have played a role in bringing about this decision from Bose and the FRA.

Our union cannot call this a win just yet because FRA does not have the authority to make a final ruling in this matter. That duty lies with the OMB. So, this prize fight is not over, but SMART-TD is proud to say that we are ahead on the judges’ scorecards as we head into the last round.

Public comments are due to the OMB on February 21st, and by statute, their agency has 60 days to issue a final ruling. If we are successful, train lengths will now be public records and subject to public records requests. Not only will our union, the biggest freight rail union in the country, and 11 other rail industry labor organizations have access to this data, but every non-profit activist group, every state’s attorney general and legislators wanting to examine the impact of blocked crossings, and every lawyer looking to make a case as to why a railroad is liable for the delay of an ambulance getting to their client in time will have a right to every piece of train length data they could ever want.

It is hard to overstate what this victory would mean for railroad workers and public safety if we can get this initiative over the finish line. These corporate powerhouses have largely been getting their way for a century and a half, and they are not taking this setback lying down.

With public comments on this round due to the OMB on Feb. 21st, it is almost guaranteed AAR and the carriers are retooling their arguments and are doubling down on the amount of billable hours their lobbyists and lawyers are putting into this issue. Rest assured; your union is not going to let our guard down. We have every intention to issue further comment affirming our stance and categorically addressing the railroads’ flimsy, yet well-funded arguments.

Momentum is with us, but we aren’t taking anything for granted. SMART-TD and the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department are in this for the long haul. We won’t be satisfied with a partial or short-lived victory.

You will be kept up to date as this story progresses.