May 21, 2014
DECATUR (May 21)—Members of UTU Local #768 are breathing a sigh of relief following a ruling by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) that air brakes must be used on cuts of freight cars being delivered or picked-up by Norfolk Southern crews servicing the Archer Daniel Midland (ADM) corn-processing plant.
The FRA decision put an end to a multi-year dispute in which local NS managers tried to speed up handling of freight cars delivered to the plant by ordering crews not to connect the air hoses on pulls or deliveries so as not to delay engine departures by conducting a standing air test or walking the train to ascertain brake performance on each car.
NS claimed federal regulations authorized the movements to be made without air brakes because they were pure “switching moves” that never used a main-line track and involved only a short distance of travel between NS’s Decatur Yard and the ADM facility.
But Local #768 Legislative Representative Carl Draper said it wasn’t that simple. In a December 3, 2013, e-mail to SMART-TD Illinois State Legislative Director Robert W. Guy, Draper said the consists of the switching moves sometimes included bulk commodity trains consisting of as many as 50 cars, while at other times the crews had to move long mixed consists of loads and empties that made trains extremely difficult to control using the engine brake alone.
“The slack problems in a long cut of rail cars can be severe when you don’t have air brakes,” Draper told “Hot Topics.” “You can break knuckles or drawbars, and any cars that may become separated from the engine can just coast until they hit something.”
Draper further pointed out that the track included four public grade crossings, four private grade crossings, two diamonds protected by a manually operated gate and a 180-degree curve.
And half of each pickup or delivery involved a shoving move.
Asked if accidents had occurred during shoves, Draper replied, “It has happened many times.”
Draper said the local did not insist NS was wrong and did not demand the federal agency order the railroad to institute air braking on the ADM jobs. All it sought from the FRA was a clarification of what the rules required.
“When we initially contacted Bob we did not say we wanted to use air,” Draper said. “We just asked, ‘What does the FRA say?’ We got out the FRA regs, and it seemed to say air brakes and an air test were required.”
Draper said the local informed NS of its opinion that air was required.
“We were handling big heavy cuts and shoving them over multiple crossings without adequate control of braking, but NS insisted it was simply a switching move and did not require air,” he said.
The day after receiving Draper’s e-mail Guy wrote to FRA Region 4 Administrator Mike Long asking that FRA inspectors visit the site and observe the five daily jobs that switch the ADM facility, including the night jobs.
Long dispatched an inspection team, and after receiving the team’s report notified Guy in a May 1 letter that the agency had determined and confirmed that the jobs cited by Draper were not in fact switching but transfer moves that did require air.
“The FRA inspectors assigned to this investigation observed the train movement and met with NS Management at Decatur Terminal during the investigation,” Long wrote.
“FRA’s interpretation of this movement is that the train is required to have transfer train brake tests which come under 49 CFR Part 232.215,” he said. “A transfer train, as defined in 232.5, shall receive a brake test performed by a qualified person, as defined in 232.5, that includes the following: (1) The air brake hoses shall be coupled between all freight cars; (2) After the brake system is charged to not less than 60 psi as indicated by an accurate gauge or end-of-train device at the rear of the train, a 15-psi service brake pipe reduction shall be made; and (3) An inspection shall be made to determine that the brakes on each car apply and remain applied until the release is initiated by the controlling locomotive.”
Long told Guy he had communicated the agency’s finding to NS management at Decatur Terminal and that NS had expressed an intention to request a waiver from the ruling.
Draper acknowledged that NS may succeed in winning a modification of the ruling. He said it’s possible that FRA will order the air tests to continue but will drop its demand that the brakes on each car be inspected and will accept a brake application on the last car as a proxy for applications on the entire train.
Guy said he felt that most of the ruling will prevail.
“The FRA regs specify when and what type of air brakes are to be performed, regardless of the amount of mileage traveled,” he said.
“We thought it was quite clear so we asked for clarification. The members did a wonderful job in bringing this to our attention and the FRA did a great job in clarifying the rules.”
Guy praised the Local #768 members who brought the railroad’s conduct to Draper’s attention.
“This was a classic example of supervisors, using verbal directives that were contrary to federal and company guidelines, trying to expedite moves at the cost of a potential violation,” Guy said. “Our members wanted to have a consistent application of what was required and they got it.”
Draper said his local would accept the FRA’s final ruling.
“It’s been interesting to watch the process,” he said. “You pass it to the FRA, you see FRA inspectors around the property, then you wait, and the ruling comes down. The process takes time, but it works.”