Class I railroad carriers in this country aren’t used to losing their game of government influence and lobbying. Traditionally, they use the cover fire they get from the American Association of Railroads (AAR) to throw money and influence around Capitol Hill until they can dictate all public policy dealing with our rail industry.

Every time one of our men or women reads a new system bulletin that makes their profession less safe or makes the service provided to customers less dependable and wonders why this change could happen, the answer is usually rooted in carriers’ influence on regulation.

In the past four years, SMART-TD has made progress in turning that tide. The Class I railroad companies and AAR have seen a distinct drop in their win percentage. When they are shot down by the Department of Transportation, they often see “In light of comments put forward by SMART-TD” as the lead-in to the bad news. Here’s another of these rude awakenings.

Carriers try to eliminate hard copies

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) announced in the Federal Register that the AAR and the carriers took yet another loss at the hands of SMART-TD, the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department (TTD) and common sense.

AAR was attempting to take the CT-168 and all hazmat paperwork out of the locomotive, making the tablets and company computer systems the only line of defense when hazmat is involved in a derailment or other rail emergency.

As they did last June in the National Transportation Safety Board’s hearing on the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, the industry attempted to sell the idea that their “Ask Rail” cell phone application would make it so local EMS personnel are able to quickly and easily obtain consist information of any train involved in an incident. SMART-TD made your position clear: That is not good enough. Many places where we work are not in WiFi-friendly hotspots of technology!

AAR and the railroads went out of their way to make the argument that the conductor of a train crew was able to use their assigned tablet to upload the consist and hazmat paperwork to emergency workers through Dropbox and other software.

We all know this is a poor excuse for emergency preparedness and is just another attempt to push the idea that technology can easily replace people in our industry.

In light of the announcement from the Department of Transportation and PHMSA, SMART-TD is proud to say that paper copies of hazmat paperwork and the all-important CT-168 will remain onboard locomotive cabs in this country!

PHMSA sides with SMART’s argument

SMART-TD would like to thank PHMSA, and the leadership at the Department of Transportation. Without them valuing common sense and the safety of our crews, AAR could have easily chipped this line of defense away from workers and first responders.

“This might not sound like a big deal, but it absolutely is,” SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said. “The safety of our members and the community often hinges on access to this hazmat paperwork and the professionalism of our people to know how to apply the information. Anyone willing to tell you a tablet and WiFi is adequate to depend on in a high-stakes crisis involving hazmat doesn’t have the public’s best interest or the physical safety of railroaders in mind. Our crews keep the consist information up to date at all times. When a train works a handful of yards in a day, the computer systems often don’t have the most up to date information on what’s in the train until it goes by the next AEI reader. SMART-TD’s members continue to be the most reliable variable in cases of emergency. The Department of Transportation and PHMSA were able to see our value and in this ruling they have ensured we will continue to have the necessary tools to keep ourselves, each other, and our communities as safe as possible.”

The ruling also increases access to the consist and hazmat information beyond the emergency services of just the community the event took place in.

 Jared Cassity, head of SMART-TD’s National Safety Team, put it like this: “When a derailment or other disaster happens in a small town like we saw in East Palestine, Ohio, emergency workers are coming from every direction and multiple other jurisdictions to help out. If these men and women are fighting against the dangerous materials our trains are hauling, they should have access to all the information we can give them to try to keep themselves safe. We can’t expect them to operate in the dark and assume the information will get to them. It’s not hard to imagine scenarios where this information will get to them too late after it’s been given to one town’s fire chief and filtered through the command center and makes it to the front lines.”

Your input helped!

In their announcement, PHMSA cited that their ruling was heavily influenced by public comments. As they described the logic behind their decision, they consistently cited our union along with the AFL-CIO’s TTD.

“We’re thrilled PHMSA and the Department of Transportation ruled on the side of our union and our years of safe practices in this matter,” National Legislative Director Greg Hynes said. “We will stay engaged in the public comment process to make sure our members continue to have their voice heard in all future matters affecting their safety!”

Follow this link to see the full public comment SMART-TD submitted to PHMSA in this matter.

The AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department coalition, of which the SMART-MD and SMART-TD are part, sent the following letter to Congress in conjunction with rail industry representatives on May 21:

The Honorable Robert Aderholt
Committee on Appropriations
Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies 
United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

The Honorable Rosa DeLauro
Ranking Member
Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies
Committee on Appropriations 
United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

The Honorable Tammy Baldwin
Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies
Committee on Appropriations
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

The Honorable Shelley Moore Capito
Ranking Member
Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies
Committee on Appropriations
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Chair Aderholt, Ranking Member DeLauro, Chair Baldwin, and Ranking Member Capito:

On behalf of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA), the Association of American Railroads (AAR), and the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO (TTD), we write to express our strong support for the Railroad Retirement Board’s (RRB’s) Fiscal Year 2025 (FY25) request for $172.331 million in the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies (Labor-HHS) appropriations bill. 

Over the last several years, RRB has faced many challenges, including a severe staffing shortage and an ongoing, complex Information Technology (IT) modernization effort, while navigating the high demand for benefits and assistance during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. These challenges have been exacerbated by the $2 million cut in funding Congress passed last year in the Fiscal Year 2024 (FY24) Labor-HHS appropriations bill. The impact of these budget cuts is already being seen. For example, 25 percent of RRB’s current employees will be eligible for retirement within the next year, but due to limited funding, RRB has been unable to replace those employees. These shortages have led to major backlogs in work and decreases in service to railroad retirees and workers. 

We have appreciated Congress’ past support for RRB’s efforts to modernize IT programs and improve the Board’s ability to pay benefits and maintain program integrity.  Unfortunately, this dedicated funding will be depleted by the end of FY24, though more work remains.  

For these reasons, RRB has requested $172.331 million in funding for FY25, $38.331 million above the President’s FY25 request. Of that funding, $28.331 million would be used to hire and retain the 880 full-time employees necessary to sustain operations and meet the Board’s core mission of paying the right benefits to the right people in the right amount at the right time. The remaining $10 million would allow RRB to continue making progress on its IT modernization effort, which Congress has supported in the past to improve program integrity. A more detailed explanation of RRB’s request is attached to this letter. 

It is important to note that RRB’s funding structure is unique in that railroad employer and employee contributions are held in trust funds not only to pay railroad benefits, but also to support RRB operations. Enacted appropriations language simply authorizes the RRB to access their own available funds in the railroad retirement trust fund system for the agency’s administrative budget, rather than drawing from the general pot of taxpayer funds. In effect, rail labor and management are funding the agency’s operations. They pay into the trust so that when their earned benefits are needed, the RRB is there to timely process applications and provide the customer service they deserve. We ask that you allow the agency to receive the funding it requests so that it can fully meet the needs of the railroad community.

We urge you to fund RRB at the requested $172.331 million to allow the agency to hire and retain the necessary employees and continue essential IT modernization. This funding level will ensure the Board continues to effectively serve the over 560,000 railroad employees and retirees and their families who rely on these benefits. 


Ian Jefferies
President and CEO
Association of American Railroads

Chuck Baker
American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association

Greg Regan
Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO

In the aftermath of February’s rail disaster in Ohio, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee held a key hearing March 22 on “Improving Rail Safety in Response to the East Palestine Derailment” to get to the bottom of what went wrong in the accident and to discuss the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023.  

SMART Transportation Division Ohio State Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker answers a question March 22 in the rail safety hearing before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee in Washington, D.C.

The committee had an all-star cast of witnesses who testified, including: two U.S. senators; Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine; East Palestine resident Misti Allison, who represented the community; National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy; David Comstock, chief of the Ohio Western Reserve Joint Fire District; Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw; Association of American Railroads (AAR) CEO Ian Jeffries, and SMART-TD’s Ohio State Legislative Director (SLD) Clyde Whitaker. To begin the hearing, U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown and JD Vance kicked off the day explaining in detail the bill, S.B. 567, they’re putting forward.  

Brown began his comments by thanking the witnesses for testifying and referred directly to SLD Whitaker, calling him “an unrelenting advocate for safe working conditions for his members and all people working in Ohio railroads.”  

Brown then went on to discuss why this legislation is so necessary.

“Norfolk Southern followed the Wall Street business model,” he said. “Boost profits and stock price by eliminating, over the last decade, 38% of its workforce.”

He went on to describe Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) perfectly, saying, “They cut cost to boost profits. The communities along their route be damned!” 

Vance followed Brown, and in a tone very similar to the testimony he gave March 9 in front of the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works, laid out that the intention of the bill is not to put the government in charge of day-to-day operations of America’s railroad companies like the bill’s outspoken opponents would like the public to believe. He addressed that concern of the rail carriers who have made it known that they feel the legislation is an overreach by Congress, where he stands on that issue by stating plainly that, “You cannot on the one hand beg the government to bail you out of a labor dispute three months ago and then say that it’s ‘big government’ to have proper safety standards in the way that you conduct your railroads. It’s a ridiculous argument, and it doesn’t pass the smell test.” 

Gov. DeWine followed the Buckeye State’s senators and weighed in heavily on behalf of the residents of East Palestine. He started by describing life as it was in the village of 4,700 leading up to events of Feb. 3, 2023. He walked the committee through the Norman Rockwellian Friday night where the community was keenly focused on the high school basketball game in progress until the unthinkable happened.  

“Life stopped being normal for everyone in this community — it stopped feeling safe — when 38 cars of that Norfolk Southern freight train, carrying hundreds of thousands of pounds of hazardous materials, hurtled off the track. In an instant, life turned upside down,” he said. 

DeWine went on to describe the tough questions facing residents of East Palestine revolving around their physical health as well as the viability of their community’s future.  

These points were driven home by witness Misti Allison. Allison, a resident of East Palestine for the last four years, was testifying in front of the Senate committee on behalf of her community. In her own words, her goal was “to put a face on this chemical disaster.”  

In addition to emphasizing DeWine’s points in reference to the health concerns swirling around in East Palestine, she shared other details about a community shattered. Among the issues she brought to the committee’s attention were home equity of the residents, the viability of local businesses and the concerning contradictions in the results of various sources of environmental testing of air, water and soil samples.

The most-telling and unique issue she brought to light was the still-developing mental and emotional health concerns of the community post-derailment. She pointed out the ramifications the derailment has had especially among the youth of East Palestine in her written testimony: “Kids are not allowed to play on the playground because it hasn’t been cleaned. So the kids now play a game they invented called ‘EVACUATION’ during recess. This train derailment has robbed our kids of their childhood, and perhaps more.” she said. 

This imagery is powerful and takes the importance of the Railway Safety Act of 2023 out of the realm of financial ramifications and puts it squarely in the arena of human rights.  

SMART-TD Ohio State Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker’s testimony before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee.

At the conclusion of Allison’s testimony, it was time for Brother Whitaker to take the rather large stage and speak our union’s truth directly to power. SLD Whitaker explained in detail the effects PSR have had on our industry from the ground level.  

In July 2022, Whitaker filed a complaint with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) directly reporting that NS had been ordering their crews to disregard warnings from wayside defect detectors in his state and to keep their trains rolling after receiving alerts of hot bearings.  

He informed the senators that he had personally cautioned the FRA months prior to the East Palestine derailment that carriers’ business practice and adherence to the PSR doctrine was putting our crews and communities in harm’s way.  

“PSR has made the Class I railroads more than $160 billion in profit since 2015 while at the same time causing the greatest degradation of safety in modern day railroading,” he said in his written testimony. “As we have all seen in East Palestine, this cut-your-way-to-profit model is not sustainable and it is very, very dangerous.” 

He further emphasized the impact of PSR on safety by talking about the current state of safety inspections of rolling stock and maintenance of equipment.  

“No longer is identifying defects the goal of inspections. Instead, the goal is to minimize the time it takes to perform them or the elimination of them altogether, so the trains keep moving,” he said. “Compound this with the fact that the railroads are on a determined course to grow these trains to astronomical lengths and you have a predictable outcome, and that outcome is East Palestine.” 

A member of the audience donned a hazmat suit while attending the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing on railway safety March 22 in reference to the contamination that occurred in East Palestine, Ohio, after a Feb. 3 derailment.
A member of the audience donned a hazmat suit while attending the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing on railway safety March 22 in reference to the contamination that occurred in East Palestine, Ohio, after a Feb. 3 derailment.

Following Brother Whitaker was not an easy task for CEO Alan Shaw of Norfolk Southern. He was noticeably uncomfortable, and his opening statement was predictably a rehashing of the same talking points he has used since the spotlight turned to him and his company in early February.  

When CEO Shaw and Ian Jefferies, president of the Association of American Railroads, completed their revisitation of industry jargon, the hearing was not over.  

Each senator was given the opportunity to ask questions of the panel. Senators of both parties took turns flogging Shaw and Jefferies about the holes in the logic behind their arguments and pointing out the contradictions between their claims and what Whitaker (a certified conductor and engineer) was telling them his firsthand reality is.  

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), ranking minority member of the committee, was clearly deferring to SLD Whitaker’s expertise, when the stories of the two rail executives weren’t mirroring reality.  

To sum up the committee hearing that took the better part of a day, it is safe to say that Sens. Brown and Vance seem to have assembled a piece of legislation that has wide support among their senate colleagues on both sides of the political spectrum.

SMART-TD would like to let Brother Whitaker know that his representation of our organization and of rail labor is a proud example of how we will continue to fight for our members and the communities they call home.  

The CEO of the National Association of Chemical Distributors seems to understand how to fix the railroads better than the carriers do.

Supply Chain Dive published an opinion article Oct. 17 by Eric R. Byer, who leads the National Association of Chemical Distributors (NACD), in which he laid out some basic blueprints to rebuilding the American railroad industry.

NACD’s Eric Byer

Written from the perspective of heavily rail-dependent customers, Byer does a great job of laying out an overhead shot of the current state of the rail industry, and then poses the question, “Why are we in this predicament?”

Refreshingly, his answer is, “Because the freight rail companies put us here.”

As his column puts it, the root of the labor dispute and poor service to the customers spawn from the same source. The advent and spread of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) has enticed carriers to indulge in a buffet of greed and railroad labor, the nation’s supply chain and the railroads’ captive customers are paying the price for carriers’ short-sighted indiscretions.

The article points out another victim of the carrier’s overreach may well turn out to be the American economy. As Byer points out and as the Association of American Railroads put out to the media back in September, a rail labor stoppage will cost the country $2 billion daily

From the perspective of the rail customers, Byer points out the obvious. The fact is that manpower issues on the railroad are making it difficult for rail-dependent companies to function, meet supply deadlines and be profitable. This is not a new thought, but Byer’s angle on how to address the problem is very different from the traditional one taken by railroad executives. 

Byer thinks the solution is to add more horses to the plow team rather than giving the farmer more whips. That is to say, creating a satisfied, fully staffed and not habitually broken workforce is a better fix than squeezing every minute carriers can legally get out those who are still working for them. 

He also discusses that, in addition to PSR, quality-of-life concerns led to the manpower shortage. He references the fact that our members are highly skilled professionals with extensive training who are subject to working standards that don’t meet the criteria of unskilled full-time workers.

It is good to know that there’s at least one CEO out there in Byer who can connect the dots between what he calls a “woefully inadequate” sick leave policy for workers, and American products not reaching the market, the subject of Surface Transportation Board and U.S. House hearings earlier this year.

Read Byer’s open column on

A safety alert was issued this week after the discovery of tripwires by a Class I worker Aug. 19 stretching from rail spikes to a sign across the ballast near Harrisonville, Mo.

“The affixing of these wires – difficult to find even when looking for them, much less see while performing professional duties along the right-of-way – presents a substantial hazard for railroad workers,” the Railway Alert Network alert issued Aug. 22 stated.

View the full alert here. (PDF)

In anticipation of today’s House hearing on the U.S. supply chain, an “exclusive” pro-carrier piece in the Washington Examiner on freight crew size says that keeping two people on freight crews is making the problem worse, neglecting to mention the massive cuts in rail labor and workforce retention issues the carriers have created through Precision Scheduled Railroading that have contributed to the supply chain problem.

Read the article.

Amtrak’s financial situation and the freight rail industry’s continued use of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) practices were the focus of a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing Oct. 21.
Amtrak President and CEO William Flynn repeated his plea for almost $5 billion in emergency funding to help the nation’s passenger carrier weather the continued downturn in ridership caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The carrier has made drastic long-distance service cuts, going from daily to three trips per week on many routes. Furloughs for almost 2,000 Amtrak employees are scheduled to take effect in November.
“Virtually all of the CARES Act money has been spent,” Flynn told the committee. “These workforce adjustments are essential with current financial funding.”
A number of legislative actions, including the HEROES Act and the INVEST in America Act, while passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, have been stalled by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the GOP-controlled Senate. The emergency funding provided by such legislation would help the carrier rebound, Flynn said.
“Once the pandemic eases, Amtrak plans to grow,” he said.
A second panel featured a discussion of PSR.
Rudy Gordon, CEO of the National Grain and Feed Association, expressed concerns from a shipper perspective about the redeployment of furloughed railroad workers, saying that he fears delays in service and shipments on the part of rail carriers when the economy rebounds.
PSR has caused “a tipping point” at the expense of customer service, Gordon said, and said that if rail service erodes further at the expense of the carriers obtaining lower operating ratios (ORs) that the Surface Transportation Board should intervene.
Larry Willis, president of the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department (TTD), of which the SMART Transportation Division is a member, offered written testimony concerning PSR.
“Across the sector, the pandemic continues to wreak havoc, threatening both the health and livelihoods of employees,” Willis stated. “At the same time, freight railroads, at the insistence of Wall Street investors and hedge fund managers, have pursued operating practices that undermine basic tenets of rail safety, ask frontline workers to do more with less, and threaten the reliable and efficient customer service that should be the hallmark of this industry.”
The lone labor representative invited to testify in person was Dennis Pierce, president of the Teamsters Rail Conference.
Other industry stakeholders appearing were:

  • Paul Tuss, executive director, Bear Paw Developing Corporation and Member, Montana Economic Developers Association
  • Frank Chirumbole, vice president global supply chain, Olin Corporation on behalf of American Chemistry Council
  • Kent Fountain, chairman, National Cotton Council
  • Ian Jefferies, president and chief executive officer, Association of American Railroads

Watch the hearing by following this link.

In yet another example that elections have consequences, the Trump-appointed FRA administrator’s actions have potentially minimized both public and employee safety on the railroad.
In September 2019, after the State of Illinois enacted a law requiring that trains operated in Illinois be operated with a certified conductor and certified engineer, the Indiana Rail Road, which often operates with one-person crews over 250 miles of track in Illinois and Indiana, sued the Illinois Commerce Commission in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois Eastern Division.
Backed by the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA), the carrier challenged that newly signed state law.
In May 2019, just days after the Illinois Legislature had passed the law, Federal Railroad Administrator Ron Batory, who was appointed by Trump and confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate, withdrew a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on crew size and declared that any state law regarding crew size was preempted.
In the Indiana Rail Road lawsuit, the carrier and lobbying groups repeatedly referred to “the wisdom” of Batory’s declaration of federal preemption. The Trump appointee has followed up with other FRA choices such as safety waivers for railroads during the COVID-19 pandemic and refusing to issue an emergency order on faulty air brake components.
“Ron Batory’s notice withdrawal absolutely paved the way for the district court to rule,” SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy Ferguson said. “We must keep in mind, however, that this issue is not yet settled. A larger discussion in court remains ahead, as the judgment states.”
Indeed, the district court noted that the issue of validity of the FRA’s action, which was raised by SMART-TD and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, was not properly before it and as such, the action stood for the time being.
The court went on to note that those issues are currently pending before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals involving a challenge by the states of California, Washington and Nevada, along with SMART-TD and BLET, as to the FRA’s compliance with the required APA procedures and its ability to declare state law preempted.
Oral argument was heard in that case Monday, October 5, 2020. The court has taken the matter under advisement and will issue a decision hopefully in the near future.
“It is worth noting that if the Ninth Circuit later holds that the FRA Withdrawal Order is invalid, then the Illinois Commerce Commission may move to vacate the judgment,” the district court ruling stated regarding the Illinois case.
The Illinois Commerce Commission, which would have enforced the law, was joined by SMART-TD and the BLET in defending the two-person crew law.
The court’s ruling effectively voids enforcement of the law, which took effect in January.
Read the ruling.

SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy Ferguson has requested that the Federal Railroad Administration issue an emergency order to carriers that train car valves prone to leakage during cold temperatures be replaced and/or repaired immediately.
“The FRA and the AAR have known about this issue for too long and have done too little to address it in a timely fashion. The safety of the public and all railroaders should never be compromised for the sake of productivity,” he said. “Our organization will not tolerate such behavior, nor will it go unchecked.”

The DB-60 II control valve manufactured by New York Air Brake is shown in this image from the manufacturer’s website. This model uses the DB-10 as one of its components.
The malfunctioning main air brake control valves on cars prevent trains from going into emergency braking mode during cold weather.
The Association of American Railroads (AAR) has been aware of cold-weather operation issues for New York Air Brake valve model DB-10 since at least October 2013. It sent out a maintenance advisory to all members of an inspection and repair procedure at that time.
In a letter to FRA Administrator Ron Batory sent Dec. 20, President Ferguson expressed his strong disappointment that a known safety issue has not been addressed by the agency or the carriers for more than six years.
“It is unacceptable that the malfunctioning valves remain in service after the better part of a decade without proper oversight and enforcement,” Ferguson wrote. “It is equally unacceptable that the carriers, rather than fix the problem, issue stopgap remedies to solve what we have been informed is a basic issue of preventive maintenance that costs approximately $200 and as little as two hours to repair.
“It is our opinion that your agency has not done enough to ensure that the safety of rail workers and the public is protected by enforcing its own regulations.”
SMART-TD informed FRA of suspected valve failures in a letter that was sent to FRA’s Region 8 in February 2019 by Dakotas State Legislative Director Jim Chase. Former National Legislative Director John Risch followed up with a series of communications on the issue as well.
FRA advised SMART-TD that it is examining the issue and has made recommendations to carriers as to how to rectify the situation.
“I’m not real satisfied with what’s been done here,” Chase said, saying that a pair of FRA rules appear to not have been stringently enforced for six years.
It should be noted that the FRA rule §232.103(i) states:
“(i) All trains shall be equipped with an emergency application feature that produces an irretrievable stop, using a brake rate consistent with prevailing adhesion, train safety, and brake system thermal capacity. An emergency application shall be available at all times, and shall be initiated by an unintentional parting of the train line or loss of train brake communication.”
Also not being enforced, Chase said, is:
§232.105 General requirements for locomotives.
(a) The air brake equipment on a locomotive shall be in safe and suitable condition for service.

(g) When taking charge of a locomotive or locomotive consist, an engineer must know that the brakes are in operative condition.

New York Airbrake valve DB-10 was initially approved for a finite useful life by FRA. At the behest of carriers, who raised concerns about the cost of replacing these valves on thousands to tens of thousands of private cars, the valve’s use has been extended, with a number of the valves in service having components being used beyond their useful period.
Each affected train car has a single valve on it that consists of two chambers, one that supplies air for service brake application for the train and one that supplies air for an emergency brake application. Any failure of this valve could conceivably affect a train’s stopping power while it is in motion.
“There is an expected life span on these valves which is being exceeded, and this has led to valves not going into emergency,” Chase wrote in a memo to members last month, describing the suspected source of the malfunction.
Swapping out of the valves used to be a regular occurrence, according to a representative from the SMART Mechanical Department (SMART-MD).
“They used to change these valves along with all air components every eight years,” said Larry Holbert, a SMART-MD international representative.
Changing the service or emergency portion of the valve involves the removal of three bolts and replacing gaskets, Holbert said. But now, according to reports Holbert’s been getting from the field, this maintenance is done on a catch-as-catch-can basis, rather than as a preventive measure, and a leaky valve is a tricky malfunction to track down, he said. The lubricants used for the pistons in the valves dry up over time, and the gaskets also can become brittle, leading to air escaping.
“One of the main concerns is the valve will fail in the winter months. The car will be brought into the shop and pass an air test as the O-rings and seats have warmed up,” Holbert said.
SMART-TD members, who operate trains in cold-weather states, indicate that weather below 40 degrees F brings increased instances where these valves possibly fail. As a result, trains in an incident where cars have separated may not go into emergency. And, an emergency brake application by the crew during such an incident may fail because of insufficient air pressure.
In one instance, Chase said, a coal train broke in two near Dengate, N.D., and the detached cars rolled backward for miles because the rear of the train did not go into emergency mode. He said another incident in Hettinger, N.D., also involved a train splitting and cars rolling backward for a substantial distance after emergency mode failed.
Chase said he has experienced two occasions just this month in North Dakota where emergency capability has been lost on trains he has operated.
“The public and employees have the right to be safe,” Chase said. “I can think of nothing more important than having emergency capability.”
A local chairperson from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen recently reported Dec. 9 that a locomotive failed to go into emergency as well.
The malfunctioning valves, when discovered, are trucked out by carriers and taken to be rebuilt by Wabtec, a Pittsburgh, Pa.-based company, at an estimated cost of just over $180, Holbert said. Holbert estimates that if the necessary parts were in hand once a failing valve was identified, a properly equipped shop could service the valves in a half-hour or less with “minimal” time spent for carriers to swap the bad valves out.
“It’s frustrating to see this occurring. They used to do the preventative maintenance,” Holbert said.
To SMART-TD leadership’s knowledge, carriers operating in cold weather have not issued any warnings about potential valve failures. With the coming onset of winter, the potential for failures could become more prevalent.
Chase said that carriers have been reluctant to allow valves to be tested, because of potential delays to their ability to serve customers, given that there are possibly tens of thousands of private cars equipped with the DB-10 valves that could fail.
In-cab personnel are advised:

  • Evidence of the symptom begins with increased brake pipe air flow from the controlling (lead) locomotive after a brake application has been initiated. Increased head-end air flow is caused by leakage from the bottom cover exhaust port of the DB-10 service portion on the brake control valve.
  • When the air is set during an air test, if air is heard leaking out of the bottom of the valve, it is defective. If the person at the controls of the locomotive notes excessive air flow during application of the train brake, pay particular attention to an audible blow of air coming from the vent of any DB-10 service portion that may be in the consist.

A workaround that has been advocated by carriers is not safe, Chase tells SMART-TD members.
“We have been instructed now to draw the train down to zero brake pipe pressure before we separate the train to set out a bad ordered car, thus circumventing the process by which we are able to determine if the train will make an emergency application should we actually need to do so after we leave the terminal,” he said in his alert memo.
“I cannot overstate how dangerous this new procedure is. The ability of the train to go into emergency is paramount.
“We didn’t initially realize the scope of this issue. We need to start documenting emergency brake failure incidents. It’s important that somebody other than the carrier is notified. Please contact your local SMART-TD safety leadership so that we can develop a database to document this issue,” Chase said.
Members should reach out to their state legislative directors, local legislative representative, or to the SMART-TD National Rail Safety Team to report safety concerns surrounding this issue and any others that may come up. These representatives are here to work for you and to help protect you on the job.

FRA_logo_wordsLatest safety statistics released by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in April confirmed 2014 was the safest year on record for freight train operations in the United States, according to the Association of American Railroads.

Highlights of FRA freight rail safety data (per million train miles):

  • Since 2000, the train accident rate is down 45 percent, a new low, and the 2014 train accident rate was down 7 percent compared with 2013.
  • The track-caused accident rate has dropped 54 percent since 2000 and 12 percent from 2013.
  • The equipment-caused accident rate has dropped 44 percent since 2000 and 6 percent from 2013. 
  • The rate for human factor-caused accidents has declined 44 percent since 2000 and 4 percent from 2013. 

“The freight rail industry is working all out to prevent any train incident, large or small. It is an ongoing 24/7 commitment and our goal remains zero accidents,” said Edward R. Hamberger, president and CEO of the AAR. “Freight railroads are always looking to further advance safety and will continue to move forward with safety-focused initiatives and cutting-edge research and development.” 

“The FRA statistics show that while freight railroads moved more products in 2014 than any time since 2007, the focus on safe train operations remained front and center through technological improvements, company-wide safety programs and ongoing record spending back into rail operations,” said Hamberger, who noted that since 1980, $575 billion has been spent on maintaining and modernizing the 140,000-mile rail system with $29 billion planned to be injected into rail infrastructure and equipment in 2015.