INDEPENDENCE, Ohio, September 19 — The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) is taking a stand against a rail industry effort to nearly double the distance freight trains can travel between mandatory air brake inspections.
“Reducing the frequency of safety-sensitive air brake inspections would degrade safety and would put the lives of our members and the public at risk,” BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce said.
The Association of American Railroads (AAR) petitioned the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) for a waiver that would allow freight trains to travel up to 2,600 miles between mandatory air brake inspections instead of the current industry standard of 1,500 miles. Brother Vincent G. Verna, the BLET’s Directory of Regulatory Affairs, testified on behalf of the BLET at a FRA public hearing to examine the issue that was held on September 13.
“We strongly urge the Railroad Safety Board to deny AAR’s waiver petition,” Brother Verna testified. “The waiver requested would extend the distance between required tests up to an additional potential 1,100 miles, cutting the frequency of inspections roughly in half.”
The AAR intends to use a technology known as wayside Wheel Temperature Detectors (WTDs) to monitor braking effectiveness, based on the logic that properly working brakes impart heat to the wheels. Finding cold wheels would indicate a potential problem with the train’s air brakes. BLET is not opposed to the technology — just the way the industry intends to use it. During the hearing and in its written submission, BLET took the position that the technology could be deployed as a way to provide early warnings to train crews that may help prevent accidents, but that it should not be used to supplant existing safety inspections performed by qualified railroad employees.
“BLET believes WTDs should be deployed in the field and utilized for their intended use of examining wheel temperature in between terminals. WTDs should not, however, be used as a pretext for dodging regulatory safety standards,” Verna testified.
The AAR is seeking a waiver from the FRA to allow a pilot project consisting of revenue service unit coal trains running on the Union Pacific (UP) system between Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and an unloading facility in White Bluff, Ark., a round trip of approximately 2,600 miles. The WTD that monitors the system is located at Sheep Creek, Wyo. Under current UP operating practices, the coal trains running in this service are classified as extended haul trains and operate intact up to 1,500 miles between brake tests required under 49 CFR part 232.
“One irony of the requested waiver is that it seeks to use WTDs in lieu of inspections on the very types of trains (coal) that frequently carry the greatest tonnage and rely on effective brakes to ensure a train remains under control,” Verna testified. “We reject the premise that detecting temperature ranges that are out of the norm, on the one hand, and performing inspections and tests required by federal regulations and positive law, on the other, are interchangeable. We also take issue with waiving safety regulations in favor of a wholly unregulated product. This while permitting trains with extreme amounts of tonnage to travel 2,600 miles through inspection points avoiding inspection.”
Just over two years ago, in a letter dated June 20, 2014, the FRA denied rail carriers’ effort to deploy this technology at the expense of air brake inspections.