June 14, 2022

Chairs DeFazio, Payne, Jr. Statements from Hearing on Freight Rail Safety

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Chair of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Donald M. Payne, Jr. (D-NJ) during today’s hearing titled, “Examining Freight Rail Safety.”

Video of Payne, Jr.’s opening statements can be found here

More information on the hearing can be found here.

Chair DeFazio:

I thank the chair for calling this hearing. With so much change happening in this industry, this hearing provides an opportunity to examine the current state of freight rail safety and discuss the challenges of the day.

At the outset, I think it’s important to recognize that this industry has seen significant safety gains over the last several decades. In the late 1980s, for the Class I freight railroads, 20,000-30,000 total accidents/incidents every year were common, so too were more than 2,000 non-grade crossing train accidents, 800-900 total fatalities, and dozens of on-duty employees fatalities. By comparison, for the current 10 years of 2013-2022, total accidents/incidents have ranged from 5,000-6,000 per year, non-grade crossing train accidents have ranged from 1,200-1,600, total fatalities include 400-600 deaths, and on-duty employee fatalities ranged from 6-9 lost lives. 

Now, the changes that led to these safety gains did not come easily or happen overnight, and some gains were the result of congressional mandate or regulation that were put in place over the industry’s objections. 

Those statistics show clear improvements over the decades. With that record in mind, I am worried that our progress has leveled off. Accidents continue and lives are lost every year. And workers are still suffering fatalities and grisly injuries: just last year, in the span of a few days, one Class I had two new conductors with less than a year of service suffer amputations after being stuck by on track equipment. 

Railroading is inherently demanding and dangerous; it’s a 24/7 operation that requires working on or near large, heavy, moving equipment. Trains that can measure miles-long and weigh tens of thousands of tons are traveling through communities. 

For those reasons, the conversation about improving safety will never end. We need to be nimble and mitigate issues we know are unsafe.

This is especially true in the era of so-called precision scheduled railroading (PSR). After years of my railing against PSR and the ills it’s brought to this industry, the debate about whether the Class I’s have cut their workforce too much has finally been to put rest. For two days in April, labor, rail shippers, even Wall Street analysts and the railroads themselves, openly discussed the need to hire more workers. Last month, the Surface Transportation Board told this committee it agrees. Well, it’s about time.

Today we’ll hear from union witnesses whose members feel they are near the breaking point. They say that because there are so few workers, they’re working longer hours—sometimes consecutive days of 16-hour shifts—covering larger territories and feeling pressures to rush their work. We know about these conditions because individual workers are writing in and telling us—saying these pressures are causing untenable fatigue and safety concerns, contributing to poor morale, and prompting some to leave the industry—a stark change from what has traditionally been a sought-after career. This should be troubling to everyone participating in this hearing. 

In addition to the worker perspective, I’m interested in hearing from the expert witness who’s leveraged his decades of rail safety experience to call attention to a litany of accidents that he believes demonstrates a regression of the industry’s management of in-train forces, resulting in repeated risks and preventable accidents. 

Another safety expert is here today representing the freight rail industry which of course has a central role in today’s conversation. I look forward to hearing their perspective, what they’re doing to advance safety, and their commitment to improving the current conditions. 

I also want to note that we’ve been hearing concerns from stakeholders not represented here today. For example, the Association of State Railroad Safety Managers submitted a statement to this committee raising concerns with several new railroad practices, including a move by some railroads to shift maintenance costs associated with crossing improvement projects, long borne by railroads, to local municipalities, resulting in the stalling, canceling, or scaling back of projects that are intended to enhance crossing safety. The letter raises others concerns such as the impacts of very long trains and the significant challenges in properly managing in-train forces in order to avoid derailments and damaged equipment. 

Lastly, I’m pleased that our federal railroad safety regulator is here. Under this Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration has sharpened its focus on safety, launching system-wide audits of the Class I’s, audits of crewmember certification programs, inspection blitzes, a doubling down on accident reporting reviews, and rechartered a consensus-building, Rail Safety Advisory Committee. I encourage FRA to continue exercising its important oversight and regulatory authorities to improve safety, and I urge Administrator Bose to listen to the other witnesses testifying here today. If we are employing practices known to create risks and cause accidents—put an end to them. If there are corners being cut for the sake of efficiency and at the expense of safety—put an end to it. The natural role of any safety regulator is to thwart risks and hold all players accountable. That is always your role, and it is especially important while Wall Street has its grip on the industry.

I thank all the witnesses for participating today and look forward to the discussion.
Chair Payne, Jr.:

Good morning. 

I’d like to thank our witnesses for joining us today to share their testimony and expertise. 

I’d also like to thank Ranking Member Crawford for his commitment to making freight rail the safest way to ship goods. 

The safety of the rail industry remains one of the most important issues facing this subcommittee and it is why we included several safety provisions in the INVEST Act.

Today we will hear from two panels with unique insight into the safe operations of the freight rail system. 

First, we will hear from Amit Bose , the Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, whose primary role is ensuring the safety of our nation’s railroads. 

He’ll be joined by Tom Chapman, a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates significant railroad accidents and recommends ways on preventing future ones. 

These two agencies play distinct key roles in ensuring the safety of freight rail and protecting the workers and the surrounding communities from rail accidents.

Our second panel will be an opportunity to hear from representatives of the workers and railroads, who confront these safety issues every day. 

The NTSB’s 2021-2022 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements includes the call to improve safety for rail workers. 

Their recommendations speak to recurring safety issues impacting rail workers. 

These include better track protection, proper training and job briefings, and access to protective equipment.

Most importantly, it calls for work schedules and limitations that prevent workers from working overtime while fatigued. 

Railway worker fatigue is one of the most persistent and pressing issues facing our national transportation system. 

It’s a condition we’ve known about for years but haven’t solved.

Just last week the FRA took a major step to address this with their final Fatigue Risk Management Rule, and I look forward to hearing more about that from out witnesses today. 

The freight rail industry has lost nearly a third of its workforce in the past 8 years. 

The workers who remain report they are being worked harder, with longer and more unpredictable hours.

They say these conditions are worsening fatigue and making an industry that’s inherently demanding even tougher to work for. 

Cutting labor costs may have made Wall Street happy, but it’s left our national rail system more rigid and less able to respond to the ongoing supply chain shocks. 

The increased pressures on railway workers have made it harder for the railroads to retain workers or recall them from furlough.

It takes several months to fully train freight rail crew.

These trainings cannot be rushed as we seek to fill vacancies created when the railroads laid off workers—both before and during the COVID-19 Pandemic. 

Not having enough rail workers isn’t just a problem with the lack of conductors and engineers, it is across the freight rail industry. 

This includes the carmen who inspect and repair railcars and maintenance of way workers who build, inspect, maintain, and repair track, bridges, and rights of way. 

We are pleased that these workers are represented here today, and we look forward to their testimony.  

It is through the diligent work of every actor in the rail space – railway workers, railroads, and regulators – that freight rail has made significant strides to move goods safely across the nation. 

There has been, however, a plateauing of safety improvements in recent years, and the Class I railroads’ adoption of PSR has added new complications. 

This is why this committee is concerned – we are concerned that recent attempts to reduce short-term costs have had a negative impact on safety practices and the historically proud railroad safety culture. 

And today’s hearing is intended to consider some of those current issues.

I would again like to thank all our witnesses for joining us today, and I now yield to the Ranking Member for his opening statement.