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August 23, 2023
On August 6th, in CSX’s Cumberland Yard, SMART-TD lost one of our newest brothers in a temporary close clearance-related accident. This accident is made all the more tragic by the fact that it was 100% preventable.
On Wednesday, August 16th, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) put out a notice entitled, “Safety Bulletin 2023-05 in regard to the accident with the subject line of “Shoving Movement Close Clearance Fatality.” Though this is a decent summary of the raw facts of what happened, it doesn’t even begin to tell the whole story of the untimely death of SMART-TD Local 600’s Travis Bradley, the newly hired conductor trainee out of CSX’s Cumberland, Maryland, crew base, which followed the death of another CSX trainee out of Maryland, Derek Scott “D.S.” Little, on July 1.
FRA’s Safety Bulletin 2023-05 emphasizes three central points. First, is that railroad companies have got to do a better job of identifying pinch points in their tracks where conductors are at risk of coming into contact with buildings, equipment, or rail cars/locomotives in adjacent tracks. Secondly, there is an obvious need for railroads to provide adequate training to the front-line employees as to how to properly and safely train newly hired employees. Finally, Safety Notice 2023-05 points out the need to establish a guideline for the level of work experience needed for a conductor to qualify as a proper instructor of trainees. In this case, the conductor working with the now-deceased trainee had less than one year experience on the railroad when he was trusted with the safety of a student conductor.
Close clearances in railroading are quite simply that. They are pinch points where the rail cars can fit without a problem but that a conductor or trainman riding the side of the car may not. In some rail customer industries, these close clearance points are clearly marked with signs that say “Close Clearance, Stop and Dismount.” Occasionally you can find one of these signs in a yard owned by the railroad itself, but for the most part, the railroads leave decisions on whether or not a close clearance is too close up to the muscle memory of the employee conducting the move.
What the FRA is saying in this bulletin, and that SMART-TD fully agrees with, is that time and effort needs to be put in on the part of these billion-dollar corporations to do studies of their rail yards to establish where these pinch points occur and make them known to employees. The railroads must properly identify and label these close clearances for the safety of all their employees, especially their newly hired conductors who are still learning the territory.
The second point made by FRA in Safety Bulletin 2023-05 is equally valid. Railroads are hiring new conductors as fast as they can get them screened and into hiring sessions. As new conductors are entering their workforce by the thousands, they do not have an infrastructure in place to teach their existing workforce how to safely and effectively act as On the Job Training (OJT) instructors for these new recruits. In a work environment as dangerous as our country’s railroads have proven to be historically, it is unthinkable that there is not a program in place to train the trainers. It is in most scenarios still the luck of the draw. If you are the trainee due to get called to work next, you are paired with the crew that is lined up to work that train. Not all railroad professionals have the natural ability or interest in teaching trainees. Many of these conductors and engineers show up to work and find out they have a trainee for the first time while they are walking to the locomotive having never been trained how to conduct themselves in this role with any semblance of keeping themselves or their trainee safe over the course of their work duties.
Finally, FRA also pointed out that there is no threshold for how much experience is required for a conductor to qualify as a trainer. With no exaggeration, there are many cases when on a conductor’s first call to work as a marked-up and qualified conductor on their own, they have a trainee assigned to them. This is neither productive nor safe for either conductor involved. The trainer has very little idea of how to keep him/herself safe and complete the tasks at hand, let alone do the same for the trainee. It is also problematic that this very green conductor has their reaction time slowed by the distraction of having a trainee shadowing them and asking questions.
SMART is calling for a threshold to be established by FRA to determine the amount of experience and level of instruction a conductor or trainmen must have before being tasked with training a new hire trainee.
SMART-TD has issued the following internal Safety Advisory to its members to begin a healthy dialogue between conductor trainees and their mentor conductors on these critical issues.
If you’re interested in speaking more about rail worker safety, and the changes SMART-TD is calling for, we’d be happy to connect you with:
SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy Ferguson
President Jeremy Ferguson, a member of Local 313 in Grand Rapids, Mich., was elected president of SMART’s Transportation Division in 2019.
President Ferguson, an Army veteran, started railroading in 1994 as a conductor on CSX at Grand Rapids, Mich., and was promoted to engineer in 1995. Fergusson headed the recent national rail negotiations for the union with the nation’s rail carriers.
SMART Transportation Division National Legislative Director Gregory Hynes
Greg Hynes is a fifth-generation railroader and was elected national legislative director in 2019.
Hynes served on the SMART Transportation Division National Safety Team that assists the National Transportation Safety Board with accident investigations, from 2007 – 2014.
In 2014, he was appointed to the Federal Railroad Administration’s Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC), which develops new railroad regulatory standards.
Hynes was appointed the first chairperson of the UTU Rail Safety Task Force in 2009 and served in that capacity until being elected SMART Transportation Division alternate national legislative director at the Transportation Division’s 2014 convention.
SMART Transportation Division Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity
Jared Cassity, a member of Local 1377 (Russell, Ky.), was elected to the office of alternate national legislative director at the Second SMART Transportation Division Convention in August 2019 and became director of the TD National Safety Team in June 2021.
Cassity started his railroad career with CSX in September 2005 and was promoted to engineer in 2008.
In addition to his elected roles, he has been a member of the National Safety Team since 2014, where he was subsequently elected to the position of Alternate Director (East) for the NST in 2016. Likewise, he was elected by his fellow peers of state directors to serve as the directors’ representative on the CSX Safety Model Executive Board in 2013.