BLET News Analysis

DOT report blasts FRA on safety enforcement, inspections

But will railroads continue to receive a free pass when it comes to remote control?

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Inspector General issued a report in February ordering the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to overhaul the way it conducts its safety inspections.

According to an article in the February 10 issue of the New York Times, the Inspector General ordered the FRA to overhaul its railroad safety inspection program because of "substantial and systemic safety problems" at Norfolk Southern, CSX, Union Pacific, and BNSF Railway.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Inspector General's report concluded that the FRA's current railroad safety inspection program is too subjective, and that in the fall of 2005, the FRA will begin placing a greater emphasis on using safety, inspection and enforcement data to decide how and where to inspect. The report also concludes that if the FRA were to fine railroads more heavily, then it might help resolve safety deficiencies.

While BLET applauds the Inspector General's investigation, we believe that the FRA will continue to give the nation's railroads a free pass when it comes to the questionable practice of operating locomotives by remote control. The problem is the absence of enforceable regulations for remote control.

For example, FRA Safety Advisory 2001-01, which offers recommended guidelines for the operation of trains by remote control, prohibits remote control operators from riding on moving cars. But because this is just a recommendation, some railroads allow their employees to ride on cars while others don't. Some remote control operators have been hurt - even killed - while riding on moving equipment, but there is no way the FRA can prohibit it without an enforceable regulation.

But because the railroads are not violating any Federal safety regulations by allowing remote control operators to ride on moving equipment, an accident or injury caused by such a maneuver would not be recorded as a violation.

FRA safety data is based on investigations at railroads to observe specific violations of the Code of Federal Regulations. Since there is no enforceable regulation in the code to violate, the FRA's safety data will be flawed when it comes to remote control.

The BLET's ongoing opposition to remote control is based on the absence of federal regulations proscribing safety of design, inspection and testing requirements of remote control equipment. Since the equipment and the operations are not covered by regulations, the FRA would likely have no enforcement tools and, subsequently, no data to expose problems with onboard equipment or operator control units or transmitters.

When the FRA begins its new approach to safety investigations in the fall of this year, it will target railroads and operating practices based on statistical information. We can only hope the FRA will not overlook the hazards of remote control switching, in spite of its flawed data collection system.


© 2005 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen