government affairs

Rail Safety in the Chemical Industry

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The chemical industry is one of the largest customers of freight rail in both volume and revenue. Chemical distributors depend on freight rail to deliver the raw materials needed to process, formulate, and distribute products essential to Americans’ everyday health and safety. This includes critical chemicals used in the agriculture and food, energy, water treatment, electronics, paint and coatings, cleaning products, and pharmaceutical sectors. Members of the National Association of Chemical Distributors (NACD) place the highest priority on the health, safety, and security of their employees, communities, and the environment and demonstrate that commitment through adherence to NACD’s Responsible Distribution® program, the underpinning of our industry’s responsible management and handling of chemicals.

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Why Rail?

Distributing essential chemicals comes with the great responsibility of doing so safely. NACD members use our nation’s rail system every day to transport their products because it is still – by far – the safest method of shipping, with 99.9%1 of hazmat chemicals shipped by rail arriving at their destination safely.

Chemical distributors must adhere to stringent rules and regulations from a range of agencies, including the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Some of these regulations include:

  • The secure handoff of sensitive hazardous materials by designating a rail security coordinator as a contact to the U.S. Transportation Security Agency (TSA) to monitor the transport of highly sensitive hazardous materials and report any security concerns.
  • The full inspection of freight rail cars must be completed before cars can be on the track. This includes certain design requirements, markings, and required safety equipment.
  • The development of emergency response and security plans for any phase of transportation, including certain hazmat prep and packaging requirements.

These rail transportation rules and standards ensure that NACD members comply with the highest standards of safety and security.

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East Palestine, Ohio Derailment: What Went Wrong?

The devastating train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, has directed the public eye to the existing issues within the freight rail industry that have contributed to a significantly reduced rail workforce and a serious deterioration in service. Whatever the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board  determines caused the derailment, the freight rail industry has had clear and consistent warning signs that its operating system  – known as the Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) – has been off-track.

According to a 2022 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report examining the PSR system, all seven Class I railroads reported that they ran longer trains with the intent of increasing efficiency. Since 2011, the length of these trains has nearly doubled, with one railroad increasing the average train length from 5,250 feet in 2011 to nearly 7,000 feet in 2021. Another railroad reported that the percentage of trains over 10,000 feet has increased from less than three percent in 2017 to more than 25 percent in 2021.

In 2019, the GAO issued a report on freight train length stating, “To prevent derailment, stakeholders said it is important that longer trains are arranged appropriately and that crews are trained to operate them.” Earlier this year, FRA Administrator Amit Bose warned the Class 1 railroad executives that they needed to make improvements to their engineer and conductor training and certification programs, questioning railroads’ ability to adequately employ and train staff to perform important safety-related job functions. More recently, the FRA issued a Safety Advisory instructing railroads to re-examine how they arrange train cars and ensure that employees are properly trained in the handling of complex trains to ensure safe operation and minimize human error.

The same 2022 GAO report disclosed that from 2011 through 2021, the number of employees across all Class I railroads decreased by about 28 percent. The largest percentage decrease was among “Maintenance of Equipment and Stores” employees, which includes mechanical staff responsible for the maintenance of equipment including railcars and locomotives. This category of rail worker shrunk by 40 percent – nearly half.

Reforms to the Freight Rail Industry are Long Overdue

Rail service has been inadequate and unreliable for years. It is unacceptable that rail companies continue to use PSR, knowing it is the cause of nationwide service disruptions and leads to dwindling numbers of rail workers, particularly amid ongoing supply chain challenges. It is unfathomable that the rail companies would choose not to address these issues in light of continued derailments, some with disastrous repercussions for communities and the environment.

It's clear we cannot take a passive approach to rail safety any longer, and the time is long overdue for comprehensive reforms to be made to improve the freight rail industry. Recent bipartisan bills introduced in Congress attempt to address rail safety in measured, yet effective, ways. NACD will continue to work with Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle on commonsense legislation that will address rail safety, operational challenges, training and inspection requirements, train length, and infrastructure improvements. Consensus must be reached to ensure a safe and reliable freight rail system in the future.

In the meantime, NACD encourages the rail industry to provide proper training and basic quality-of-life benefits to its workforce. Doing so would entice existing rail workers to stay, attract new talent, and engage them in operating safer, more efficient railways which are critical to our nation’s supply chain.

1Freight Railroads Move America Safely