Earlier this year, while consulting with a state’s transportation department about passenger rail safety, I asked an important question: When a passenger train derails or encounters some other type of emergency, what information do rail operators share with first responders about disabled passengers who may need assistance? No one was able to answer.
The safety of the American railway system has been top of mind lately, after a series of freight train derailments in recent months. In February, a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, and 11 cars with hazardous materials caught fire. According to reporting by NPR, 18 similar incidents over the past decade have resulted in the release of hazardous materials into the environment.
In response, the USDOT has released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that will require rail operators to share real-time data on the contents of freight trains with communities and emergency responders:
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) today announced it is proposing a new rule aimed at improving public safety and preventing environmental impacts by strengthening requirements governing railroads’ provision of hazardous materials information to responders during a hazmat incident. The proposal would require railroads to always maintain — and update in real-time — accurate, electronic information about rail hazmat shipments in a train consist that would be accessible to authorized emergency response personnel. Railroads would also be required to proactively “push” that information to authorized local first response personnel as soon as the railroad is aware of an accident involving any hazardous materials.
“When railroads transport hazardous materials, they must do so safely and responsibly,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “Our proposal would improve rail safety and help protect communities across the country by requiring railroads to maintain detailed, real-time information about trains carrying hazardous materials.”
“On-demand access to key information about hazmat shipments coupled with proactive information sharing will enable first responders to better prepare for the risks present at the scene of an incident BEFORE they arrive on scene,” said PHMSA Deputy Administrator Tristan Brown. “This will improve safety for firefighters and first responders, and the communities they so courageously serve.”
“Fire fighters are often first to show up at many emergencies, including train derailments and HazMat incidents. Accurate, up-to-date information about train contents is critical to keep first responders and the communities they serve safe. The IAFF strongly supports the Department of Transportation’s new rule that would give fire fighters real-time data allowing for safer responses. We applaud the DOT for prioritizing fire fighter and public safety,” according to Edward A. Kelly, General President, International Association of Fire Fighters.
PHMSA and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) have taken several additional actions to improve freight rail safety. That includes making more than $25 million in funding available to help train first responders and strengthen safety programs and issuing safety advisories to railroad companies about replacing tank car covers and urging a faster transition from DOT-111s to DOT 117s rail cars.
The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) would require all railroads to generate, in hard copy and electronic versions, real-time train consist information for shipments containing hazardous materials. Required information would include the quantity and position of the shipment on the train, the shipment’s origin and destination, and a designated emergency point of contact at the railroad.
The proposal responds to congressional mandates in the FAST Act, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendation providing electronic train consist information to emergency officials and personnel that respond to hazmat incidents for railroads, as well as lessons learned from firefighters responding to the February 2023 Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, OH. Consistent with the broad scope of the NTSB recommendation, PHMSA’s proposal goes beyond the FAST Act mandate that had been limited to Class 1 railroads and extends these new proposed requirements to all railroad classes and requires proactive notification to local first responders in the case of an accident or an incident involving a release or suspected release of a hazardous material.
The proposed rule has been transmitted to the Federal Register. A publication date will be provided when it becomes available along with an opportunity to provide public comment.
This is a tremendous step in the right direction, and it models precisely what I recently proposed… for passengers. The thing is, passenger trains derail too. Over the past decade, 5 Amtrak trains have experienced a derailment, with the most recent occurring in June 2022 on the Southwest Chief service in Missouri. The 5 most recent Amtrak derailments have collectively resulted in 18 passenger deaths and hundreds of injuries.
I have ridden with Amtrak all across America. A few years ago, I was stuck for hours behind another train that had been disabled after a grade crossing accident. I sat there and wondered, what if I had been on that train? How would I evacuate as a wheelchair user, and what resources might be available to me? Would first responders know that I am here? What if my train derailed?
Passenger rail operators should be required to meet the same standard as haulers of freight — to provide emergency responders with the number and location of passengers onboard (including and especially disabled passengers and wheelchair users), with a duty to “push” that information to the authorities as soon as an accident has occurred.
The USDOT’s commitment to make American railroads safer is worthy of praise, but the opportunity for this regulatory advancement to also benefit passengers should not be missed.
Although I have been encouraged by the state governments that are beginning to engage in conversations around disabled passenger safety, there is still a long way to go to achieve equity in safety on America’s railways. Passengers should be given at least the same level of consideration as freight, and I encourage you to share that sentiment during the public comment period which will open soon.