Schwichtenberg keeps safety front and center at CSX

3/7/2023
“It really doesn’t matter where we are on paper, we’re constantly looking for ways of improving this railroad in every single department.” — Chief Safety Officer Jim Schwichtenberg, CSX CSX Corp.

By Julie Sneider, Senior Associate Editor 

While it’s common for people in railroading to say “safety is the top priority,” Jim Schwichtenberg takes those words to heart. The word is even in his title: He’s vice president and chief safety officer at CSX. 

Prior to joining CSX in May 2018, Schwichtenberg worked for nine years at the Federal Railroad Administration, where his work required overseeing railway worker protection requirements. In addition, he’s worked for two other Class Is — including on safety matters — for a combined 25 years in the rail business.  

Schwichtenberg was brought in to help CSX help set a new course on safety practices. He oversaw a comprehensive safety review by an independent consultant hired to evaluate the company’s safety practices and found areas in need of improvement. 

“We had a lot of challenges,” he said of his early days at the company. 

One area in need of improvement was roadway worker safety. In November 2018, a CSX track welder was struck and killed by a CSX train while he worked on track in Estill, South Carolina. An additional roadway worker, a trackman, was at the work location and had been assigned to serve as a watchman. The train crew told federal investigators that they didn’t realize a person was on the track until moments before impact, according to the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report. The crew sounded the train horn or bell, but there was no response from the roadway worker group. 

The NTSB concluded that the probable cause was the “failed implementation of train approach warning” and other contributing factors.  

In response, CSX made substantial rule changes for rail roadway work. 

“I looked at that situation and I thought about a welder who’s working on live track, he’s got his mask down and he’s concentrating on grinding or welding, which is loud. I can’t think of another position where you are that vulnerable and reliant upon somebody else,” Schwichtenberg says. 

CSX Locomotive In 2018, CSX ramped up efforts to improve the railroad’s safety performance. Brian Logan Photography / Shutterstock.com

In the evaluation, Schwichtenberg learned that only one train — the one that struck the welder — passed through the area that day. He also found out the crew hadn’t called the dispatcher ahead of the welding work to ask for exclusive track occupancy. If the dispatcher had been contacted, the work crew would have had advance notice of when a train would be passing through, giving the welder and work crew more time to clear the track, he said. 

Among CSX’s rule changes: It’s now mandatory that when crews are working on track, they must first contact the dispatcher and ask for track occupancy. If that’s not possible due to high volume traffic, the crew must be given information on where and when trains are going to be. Also, train speed must be reduced in areas where crews are making track repairs. 

All that information is now covered during those work crews’ daily job briefings.  

The National Transportation Safety Board, which a few years ago added rail worker safety to its “Most Wanted” list of transportation safety improvements, has taken note of CSX’s updated rules. The NTSB recommended railroads take specific actions to improve safety conditions of roadway rail workers following a separate accident that occurred in 2018 when an Amtrak train struck and killed a rail gang watchman in Bowie, Maryland. 

NTSB Member Thomas Chapman said in a recent interview with RailPrime that CSX’s rule changes regarding roadway worker safety are “important steps in the right direction” to improve conditions for rail roadway workers.

CSX also has updated safety training for workers. That and other actions have helped CSX achieve fewer Federal Railroad Administration-reportable injuries or train accidents than other Class Is, according to Schwichtenberg. Such preventative measures are making a difference. In 2021, CSX employees worked the entire year without a fatality, amputation or life-changing injury occurring on the job for the first time in five years. CSX repeated that record in 2022, he says. 

Following up on lessons learned 

Schwichtenberg and his team evaluate not only CSX’s past incidents and high-frequency events to find areas in need of improvement, but they also evaluate the “lessons learned” from incidents at other railroads. 

“We are always looking at an incident, we’re gathering data on it and then when we have new hires, or we’re training people or doing recertifications (for certain jobs), we’re providing that information from an educational standpoint back to the employees,” Schwichtenberg says. 

CSX also changed daily job briefings to make them more interactive, with employees taking turns presenting information, discussing it and asking and answering questions. The aim is to increase retention of the information being presented.  

“There is a big difference between having a safety briefing where one person reads the form and everyone is writing it down, to becoming more interactive where people are ... owning the information and talking about it,” says Schwichtenberg. “Fundamentally, there hasn’t been a big change to how we do that job briefing every day, but I think are different ways of delivering that message that keep people engaged.” 

Additionally, the company has enhanced training for new hires. This is critically important now that CSX — like other Class Is — is ramping up hiring of train crews. Last year alone the railroad brought in 2,100 new conductors, according to Schwichtenberg. 

Remaining proactive 

While the railroad still achieved a fatality-free year, there were “a lot of minor mishaps” in rail yards due to newer employees’ lack of experience, he says. So, more attention is being paid to ensuring trainees are comfortable in their skills and knowledge of what’s required for the job before they leave the CSX training center in Atlanta and complete on-the-job training in the field. That includes making sure new employees are comfortable asking questions and giving feedback if they don’t understand something. 

“We're trying to be more proactive in giving that employee everything they need to know,” he says. 

Furthering safety efforts is part of the company’s overall “One CSX” philosophy of employees looking out for one another and striving for continuous improvement, Schwichtenberg says. Certainly, he’s proud of the company’s improved safety record — an achievement he attributes to the hard work of CSX employees.  

CSX executives have taken notice of the company’s improved safety performance on Schwichtenberg’s watch. In nominating him for Progressive Railroading’s Rising Stars Award in 2019, they wrote that he has had a “dramatic” impact on safety.  

“[He’s] refocused the CSX discipline policy on behavior modification, successfully advocated for inclusion of safety targets in annual incentive bonus programs, implemented new training for front-line managers, increased rules observations in the field and intensified focus on critical rules with the greatest potential to reduce life-changing injuries,” CSX Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer Diana Sorfleet wrote at the time. 

Still, there’s no time to rest on one’s laurels when it comes to worker safety, Schwichtenberg believes. 

“It really doesn’t matter where we are on paper, we’re constantly looking for ways of improving this railroad in every single department,” he says.