Federal Railroad Administration to expand alcohol- and drug-testing regulations to include track-maintenance workers
Federal railroad officials on Friday ordered new safety measures and expanded drug testing for work crews, following a spate of train accidents, such as one that killed two track workers nearly eight weeks ago.
The Federal Railroad Administration ordered additional protective measures for work crews on or near active railroad tracks, including requiring safeguards such as the use of equipment that can serve as a second line of defense to prevent collisions between workers and trains.
The agency also expanded its existing drug- and alcohol-testing program,—already in place for engineers and dispatchers—to include track maintenance workers such as those killed in an April 3 crash in Chester, Pa., when a train killed a worker and a supervisor when it struck them and a backhoe they were using on an adjacent track.
Some of Friday’s rule changes were first proposed years ago. The rules incorporate some updates mandated by Congress in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008.
The changes also come on the heels of a series of deadly accidents at Amtrak and commuter railroads which have been tied in varying degrees to human error in the high-risk environment of active railroads. Amid a surge in passenger traffic, regulators said they are trying to wring avoidable hazards out of the national rail system.
An Amtrak spokeswoman didn’t immediately comment on the rules.
“At the end of the day, we want all railroad workers to return home safely to their families,” FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg said. “These new rules add another layer of protection for workers who work along and near railroad tracks and will help us reduce preventable worker injuries and fatalities.”
The new FRA requirements layer additional protections atop existing work rules intended to keep workers safe. Existing rules already require that a work crew notify a rail dispatcher they have left a work site before a train can be cleared to proceed through the area. The new rules require redundant protection—like a so-called shunt strap, a device which signals to a train’s engineer that workers are on the active railway—as a further safeguard.
Investigators haven’t yet announced the cause of the April crash, nor the results of toxicology tests on the workers who were killed.
Still, people familiar with the investigation said that authorities quickly determined that basic safeguards weren't in use, including the shunt strap.
Amtrak’s own rules require the use of shunt straps in many situations, a railroad spokeswoman said in the aftermath of the Chester accident. The railroad didn’t comment on whether the work crew in that incident had used a shunt strap.
The investigation has also focused on whether the work crew received an adequate safety briefing before beginning its shift, as federal safety rules require, and has examined the communication between the work supervisor and a rail dispatcher in the moments before the train was cleared to proceed through the work zone.
The FRA also will bring so-called maintenance of way workers, the crews who maintain and repair the rails, stone ballast and machinery of freight and passenger railroads, under the same federal drug-testing regimen that already applies to other critical workers such as train engineers, conductors and dispatchers.
Under existing rules, maintenance-of-way workers are tested for drugs and alcohol only when they die in an accident. The new rules will subject those workers to random drug tests, as well as tests before hiring, on suspicion of drug use, when returning to duty or after a nonfatal accident.
Representatives for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
The worker protection rules will take effect in April 2017, and the drug-testing rules will go into effect one year after publication of the rule.
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