Railroads, union clash over use of track inspection technology

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U.S. freight railroads want to know why the Federal Railroad Administration appears to be halting the use of basic safety technological know-how that has been effectively piloted amid 6 Class I railroads.

But union users argue that the technology doesn’t cover all the aspects of a monitor inspection. 

The technological know-how is making use of increased monitor geometry as part of an automated monitor inspection application to detect defects in the rail track that the human eye just cannot see. 

All of the Class I railroads, apart from Kansas Metropolis Southern, have been granted authorization from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to deploy pilot packages testing the technological innovation. But FRA in recent months denied Norfolk Southern’s ask for to continue on its pilot plan following its expiration date, and the federal company also declined to approve BNSF’s ask for to extend the application to two more territories. That induced BNSF to sue FRA in federal court docket in April in excess of the denial.

“To make us even safer, the resolution is heading to be in technologies and currently being ready to use numerous technological approaches of inspecting gear in distinct, vs . visual inspections, to get to a much better position,” stated Michael J. Rush, senior vice president for protection and functions for the Affiliation of American Railroads. We’re in a excellent put now, but we generally attempt to be better. And engineering is genuinely the reply.”

Countered Roy Morrison, director of protection for the Brotherhood of Servicing of Way – Employes Division: “We’re very considerably in favor of the observe geometry systems. They do a very fantastic task of looking for people defects better than any human could do. And we have acknowledged that in each individual a single of our general public statements. … [But] we just cannot see a justification for restricting the keep track of inspections [because that] technological know-how just does not include every little thing.”

Info from improved track geometry inspections is priceless

6 of the Course I railroads have applied pilot systems working with enhanced track geometry inspections on their networks, though the railroads vary in how they implemented the system. Four railroads have applications that expire in November.

The freight railroads argue that the technology captures much extra flaws than the human eye could or else see. The knowledge garnered from these inspections has also been large, producing its ongoing use so powerful. 

Mainly because the technological innovation outputs so considerably valuable info, the railroads should really be ready to cut down — but not eradicate — the selection of visual inspections that happen on a regular basis, the railroads argue. Those people visual inspections are done by a rail staff. 

“The blend of enhanced monitor geometry inspections with lessened visible inspections gives you a significantly, far far better system in phrases of detecting keep track of defects than the 50-12 months-outdated visible inspection routine,” Rush claimed. 

He continued, “I imagine we have gotten to the close of where by we can genuinely get with respect to making use of yesterday’s means of executing items. The only way we’re heading to make sizeable strides in protection is with know-how. [Automated track inspection] really should be considered from that perspective. We need to be in a position to use technological innovation — to do factors in another way — not only for track but for rolling stock as perfectly. And that’s how we’re heading to get to a safer position. And so this discussion is portion of a larger perspective in conditions of how we get to a safer put.”

Hurry disagreed with FRA’s reasoning to deny BNSF’s waiver though the rail security advisory committee is having up the situation due to the fact the committee can nonetheless talk about the technology’s use when present waivers and pilot plans are in position. The committee has completed so previously at other situations, in accordance to Rush.

“Why would you prevent a application that has a safety profit though the discussions are likely on? The rationale can make completely no sense,” Hurry said. “From a security point of view and from the viewpoint of [the committee], you want to proceed these programs, not just because of the protection benefit they present but due to the fact it gives you much more facts. And if you go down the rulemaking route, what’s incorrect with extra knowledge?”

BNSF was granted a five-calendar year waiver from FRA in January 2018 that enabled BNSF to deploy the technology in two of its territories, the Powder River territory and the Northern Transcon route. BNSF sought to extend that waiver to two other territories in June 2021, but FRA turned down that request in March 2022, expressing that a rail security advisory committee affiliated with FRA is finding out the most effective approach to utilizing automatic track inspection tools and methodologies. BNSF sued FRA in April above the rejection since the railroad thinks it has fulfilled FRA’s qualifications making it possible for for a waiver extension. The legal proceeding is ongoing.

The knowledge is outstanding but it’s not exhaustive, union says

While the Brotherhood of Upkeep of Way – Employes Division (BMWED) agrees with the usefulness of the knowledge and the increased track geometry inspections, the union has a number of reservations.

Despite the fact that the technology’s potential to detect observe flaws is outstanding, the know-how is unable to capture all the potential hazards that a visual inspection may catch, in accordance to the union. People involve drainage or vegetation difficulties on the roadbed, keep track of framework factors this kind of as crossties, switches or rail joints, and track obstructions. 

The union calculates that there are 213 regulations pertaining to observe inspections, and observe geometric problems make up about 25% or 26% of all those flaws. The union also points to FRA details demonstrating that of the track mishaps that occurred amongst 2016 and 2021, the will cause of 48 accidents could only be uncovered by visual inspections even though 14 could be detected by increased track geometry inspection. 

“Over 50% of the mishaps that took place from 2016 to 2021 do not even have the potential to be uncovered by the technologies that they are seeking to use and individuals are the causes that we have been opposed to every thing that’s been presented so significantly,” Morrison claimed.

But one particular primary problem is what could materialize to the monitor inspectors must increased keep track of geometry inspection keep on devoid of federal guidance or rules about how to harmony the use of technological innovation with visual inspectors.

Even though the railroads have argued that the technological know-how frees up monitor inspectors to concentrate on spots where additional consideration may possibly be essential, this sort of as switches and curves, there is no guarantee that the monitor inspectors will actually close up executing those functions. In its place, track inspectors could potentially be assigned to cover wider territories 3 to four instances more substantial than latest tasks mainly because of the excess time that they may well have, according to Morrison. The added benefits of the know-how would be shed mainly because there would be less time to emphasis on the issues places really should inspectors’ territories get bigger. 

Moreover, even though a visible inspection will usually occur, for every federal laws, there is practically nothing regulating the frequency of either the visible inspections or the inspections done by technology.

When FRA was trying to find community responses in June 2021 on whether or not it really should increase BNSF’s waive
r to two territories, BMWED sent letters asking for the waiver’s denial. Morrison agrees with FRA’s decision. 

“We do believe that, on this issue, the present FRA administration is getting the ideal stance, at the really the very least in the point that they don’t want to control by waiver. If this is seriously anything that is heading to be adopted marketplace wide, they want a regulation so that all of the railroads are inspecting by the exact same minimum amount criteria,” Morrison stated.

FRA wouldn’t remark on BNSF’s waiver software because it does not comment on pending litigation. Having said that, FRA explained to FreightWaves that it “is committed to endorsing improvements in track inspection systems in conjunction with visible track inspections to increase railroad track basic safety.”

For automatic monitor inspections that signifies authorizing exam programs for each railroad that requested them and utilizing that facts from the railroads’ packages to provide as a foundation for foreseeable future FRA basic safety actions, in accordance to FRA. The rail security advisory committee also offers tips, educated by check software info, for a rulemaking to integrate automated keep track of inspections into FRA’s monitor inspection laws. 

“We take a comprehensive and systematic technique to advancing the use of know-how in the industry,” FRA said.

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