August 17, 2023

Union group wants Class I railroads to back anonymous tip hotline


A rail union group wants to know why the Class I railroads haven’t yet adopted a federal program in which railroad employees may anonymously report safety-related incidents.

The Transportation Trades Department (TTD) with the AFL-CIO sent letters to each of the six Class I railroads asking why they haven’t yet signed on to the Federal Railroad Administration’s confidential close call reporting system (C3RS). The railroads’ trade group, the Association of American Railroads (AAR), said in March that the railroads were committed to joining the program.

“It has been nearly six months since AAR made that public commitment and none of the Class I railroads have voluntarily joined the program. We appreciate the ongoing discussions between industry and labor regarding revisions to the current program but must caution against these negotiations becoming a delay tactic,” TTD President Greg Regan wrote in letters dated Wednesday.

Calls for the railroads to join the program intensified after the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio. Following that incident, stakeholders including the rail industry, FRA Administrator Amit Bose, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and congressional lawmakers made public commitments to bolster rail safety. A rail safety bill has also been awaiting debate on the Senate floor.

TTD’s letter said federal data shows that a reportable injury occurs as often as approximately every three hours, while a derailment that reaches FRA’s reporting threshold of $11,500 in damage occurs every eight hours. Following similar effort to implement a safety reporting program in the aviation industry, the fatality rate fell by 83% in a less than 10 years, TTD said. TTD is a coalition representing 37 member unions, including the unions representing locomotive engineers and train conductors. 

“Rail workers are the eyes and ears of the system. Yet worker perspectives about current and prospective safety incidents are not fully leveraged at the moment. We believe the Confidential Close Call Reporting System can help leverage these vital worker perspectives and improve safety,” Regan said. “We appreciate the increased collaboration between labor and industry in recent months and hope we can continue onward in the spirit of mutually-beneficial cooperation to deliver on rail safety for America.”

In response to the letter, AAR said the railroads have been working with union members and regulators on the program this spring and summer, particularly over aspects of the program where AAR would like to see modifications. According to a March letter from AAR President Ian Jefferies to Buttigieg, those include rerouting the collected information to another outlet besides NASA’s reporting system, ensuring confidentiality of program participants, addressing repeated unsafe conduct with employees and enabling collected information to be shared with the wider industry. A U.S. Government Accountability Office report had recommended similar actions, AAR told FreightWaves.

“Employee confidential reporting is an important tool to help prevent accidents. Recognizing the value, all Class I railroads have longstanding programs that provide a protected avenue for reporting incidents. Central to these programs’ efficacy is the ability to turn credible information into timely action,” AAR said in a statement. “Progress has been made to date and railroads remain confident that this collaborative process will ultimately improve the C3RS program.”

The Class I railroads also have internal programs for employees to report safety concerns.

According to AAR, the group had petitioned FRA on May 30 to waive certain reporting regulatory requirements so that the railroads could join the C3RS program. That request, which AAR says is a procedural step to join the program, still awaits FRA action, AAR said.

AAR also provided to regulators in June a proposed agreement to enable the Class I railroads to sign on to FRA’s program. FRA’s rail safety advisory committee reviewed that proposal later that month, and a draft version of the agreement ran in the Federal Register and included a public comment period that just finished on Monday.

Additional discussions between FRA and industry members are scheduled for later this month, according to AAR. Discussion over the summer also included the possibility of FRA starting the implementation of the program through pilot programs and a potential future rulemaking.

TTD’s letter comes after The New York Times reported last week on the hurdles of getting the federal program implemented.

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