Rail companies are preparing for greater regulatory oversight following a horrific train derailment in eastern Ohio earlier this year. In this blog, we’ll review not only the specific changes rail companies are expecting from federal regulators in the wake of the event, but also some of the challenges these new initiatives will impose on the regulators themselves, and how they can prepare for what’s coming.
On the evening of February 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed outside East Palestine, Ohio, resulting in the forced release and burn-off of over 115,000 gallons of highly toxic vinyl chloride into the environment1. The incident led to a mass evacuation of nearly 2,000 area residents for 5 days, and has since triggered significant public scrutiny over the potential long-term environmental and human health impact from the disaster, as well as how the broader rail industry is regulated.
A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation in the days immediately following the event identified a damaged wheel bearing as the most likely reason eleven rail cars left the track that night2. Consequently, rail companies and regulators alike have turned their attention toward the systems, processes and regulations used to govern how tracks and the equipment riding atop them are installed, inspected and maintained.
In the weeks since the event, the U.S. Department of Transportation has introduced new initiatives and proposed reforms designed to better hold rail companies accountable for compliance to applicable safety regulations. Of the initiatives proposed, the DOT’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) announced it would implement a new program of targeted track inspections3, particularly focused on routes used to transport highly hazardous substances across the country. The program would include both automated track inspections, along with human visual inspections.
The agency also announced plans to increase periodic audits of railroad operators to ensure they remain compliant to rail safety regulations and applicable guidelines. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg commented that: “This is a moment when we can get more done than would’ve been thought possible before in terms of having the highest standards of accountability and safety for the sake of communities and workers.”4 It’s an ambitious plan, but one not without its challenges.
How to Create a Successful Inspection Program
Getting these increased regulatory inspection programs “on the right track” is easier said than done.
As of July 2022, there were roughly 400 FRA officials responsible to audit 700 rail operators and inspect the roughly 160,000 miles of track stretching across the United States. That’s quite a lot of ground to cover in any given year! To date, the federal government has not announced any concrete plans to hire additional staff to support this greater inspection demand. So, the increased burden of inspections will fall atop the shoulders of the FRA’s existing officials.
And beyond the increased frequency of proposed inspections, FRA inspectors face much heavier administrative burdens to manage the outputs of these actions – from transcribing inspection field notes into other agency databases or systems, to generating official reports, to consolidating results for further data analysis and upward reporting. FRA has acknowledged that the information collected from these recurring inspections will be shared with rail operators, labor organizations, rail safety experts and the public with the goal of creating greater transparency and accountability across the industry. But how much time and effort will be required to get that information from the field to these key stakeholders isn’t clear.
So, how can federal agencies support their employees in completing required inspection tasks, without increasing administrative effort to an extent that it further restricts their available time in the field. And how can they do so while ensuring critical issues are appropriately flagged and prioritized, and that overall trends and results can be easily visualized by key stakeholders? The answer lies – in part – with EHS software.
Learn how Cority’s EHS software, CorityOne can help keep employees safe and prevent incidents in the workplace.
The Value of Digitizing Your Inspection Program
Shifting to a digital, cloud-based EHS software platform has been shown to drastically increase the accuracy, efficiency and value of any organization’s audit and inspection program. Here are just a few ways a digital platform can optimize any business’ inspection processes:
Many digital platforms offer:
- Advanced administrative features that simplify how organizations schedule and assign one-off and recurring inspection activities, helping to drive broad-level employee participation while ensuring stringent compliance to industry standards and internal obligations;
- Ability of front-line staff to record inspection findings using digital checklists or protocols directly from their preferred mobile device, anywhere, anytime, whether online or offline, and in their language of choice;
- Availability of pre-built inspection templates, designed to specific industry requirements, which organizations can use as-is or configure to reflect their unique needs;
- Features to easily identify program gaps, automatically create corrective actions based on identified deficiencies, and actively monitor progress to close such actions in real-time;
- Opportunity to integrate audit & inspection processes within a broader compliance management program, including the ability to associate inspection tasks to defined, applicable legal requirements; and
- Ability to collect, aggregate and analyze audit/inspection data, identify key insights to assess overall audit/inspection program performance, and then visualize outputs to help highlight priorities, drive accountability, and guide future decision-making.
Considering these points, it’s pretty clear that through adoption of digital solution, Department of Transportation & FRA inspectors would be better equipped to complete the increasing volume of regulatory inspections anticipated in the wake of the East Palestine derailment. Digital tools would help agency admins properly assign tasks to those inspectors with capacity, ensure inspectors can document and share inspection results quickly and easily, and introduce features that assist the FRA identify, prioritize and zero-in on the most critical risks where prompt action is needed to ensure public safety.
The better visibility to data on rail operators’ compliance performance would also help regulators raise accountability across the rail industry, and ensure the continued protection of the communities through which freight traffic travels every day.
It’s difficult to say whether this heavier inspection focus will translate into improved compliance and safety performance across the rail industry, or even how quickly that desired improvement might happen. But better oversight of critical infrastructure, equipment and compliance to established rail safety practices will be key for rail operations to reduce the chances of another tragic derailment, and to begin to re-build public trust in the industry’s ability to operate efficiently, profitably and safely.
Only time will really tell. But rail companies, worker groups and regulators have a seat at the table to shift the industry to where we all want it – and need it – to be.
1 NTSB Preliminary Report RRD23MR005. https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/Documents/RRD23MR005%20East%20Palestine%20OH%20Prelim.pdf
2 Sullivan, B. February 23, 2023. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2023/02/23/1158972561/east-palestine-train-derailment-ntsb-preliminary-report-wheel-bearing
3 DOT FRA. March 3, 2023. https://railroads.dot.gov/about-fra/communications/newsroom/press-releases/matter-weeks-usdot-sees-significant-moves-toward-0
4 DOT FRA. March 1, 2023. https://www.transportation.gov/briefing-room/usdots-federal-railroad-administration-announces-new-safety-initiative-focus