Federal agencies Rail Transportation

Railroad safety agency calls for caution on train car placement


Photo: National Transportation Safety Board

Washington — Although recent technologies can improve train handling and fuel efficiency, “they cannot replace the need for correct car placement and assembly,” the Federal Railroad Administration says in a recent safety advisory.

In a notice published in the April 11 Federal Register, FRA notes a “rising trend” in recent incidents in which train build and makeup have been identified as a potential cause or contributing factor. The agency calls on all railroads to exercise due diligence and be proactive about potential safety risks related to operating train builds “with varying configurations, load and empty placement, distributed power arrangements, and other factors.”

The agency details six train derailments that took place in five states between May 16, 2021, and March 4. It identifies common characteristics and patterns:
Train length: Each of the incidents featured a train with 125 or more cars.
Distributed power units: DPUs were used in all six derailments, and shouldn’t serve as a replacement for proper train car placement or makeup.
Trailing tons: The maximum weight threshold of 4,000 trailing tons, established in the Association of American Railroads’ 1992 Train Makeup Manual, was far exceeded in all of the incidents.
First car derailed: The first car to derail in all six incidents was an empty car.
Train type: Five of the six derailments involved mixed freight trains, which typically require more complex train makeup considerations.
Hazmat cars: Five of the derailments involved trains with cars containing hazardous materials.
Derailed hazmat cars: In three of the incidents, hazmat cars derailed.
Hazmat release: Three of the derailments resulted in a hazardous materials release, threatening public safety and the environment.
Evacuations: Two of the incidents led to the evacuation of local residents.
Key trains: Three of the trains had this classification, used to describe trains with higher potential risk because of their cargo or operational characteristics.

In addition, proper training of operating employees on technologies and handling of complex trains is necessary to ensure safe operation and minimize human error.

Post a comment to this article

Safety+Health welcomes comments that promote respectful dialogue. Please stay on topic. Comments that contain personal attacks, profanity or abusive language – or those aggressively promoting products or services – will be removed. We reserve the right to determine which comments violate our comment policy. (Anonymous comments are welcome; merely skip the “name” field in the comment box. An email address is required but will not be included with your comment.)