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Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ian Jefferies yesterday wrote to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Federal Railroad Administrator Amit Bose to update them on the Class Is' efforts to join the Federal Railroad Administration's Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS).
Buttigieg called on the Class Is to join the FRA’s C3RS in the wake of the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern Railway train in East Palestine, Ohio. Recently, the Transportation Trades Department (TTD) of the AFL-CIO urged Class Is to join the program, something they’ve yet to do.
In his letter, Jefferies said that while progress has been made, challenges remain to refining the safety tool.
In June, the AAR sent a proposed memorandum of understanding that would enable nationwide participation in the C3RS program, and received the FRA’s approval on Aug. 23. Discussions at the FRA-led Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) continue, with a goal of reaching a resolution that balances "accountability, transparency and safety enhancement," Jefferies wrote.
However, an "unexpected hurdle has emerged," he added.
"The crux of the current dispute centers on a significant nuance: situations where the employer is aware of a safety rule violation without any employee report — referred to as a 'known event' — but the employee reports the event anyway and therefore avoids discipline," the letter states. "If an employee repeatedly uses the system in this way simply to avoid discipline, the basic objective of the C3RS concept is thwarted. The focus of the program shifts from prevention of accidents to employment protection."
Discussed at the RSAC is the airline industry’s close-call reporting system, which is operated by NASA, in which airline employees may use the "immunity from discipline" provision to report known or unknown events. However, that privilege is limited to only once every five years, Jefferies wrote.
Under the Class Is’ proposal discussed at RSAC, the railroads would permit an employee to report unknown events to the C3RS without limitation, and to report even known events once every three years without fear of discipline, the letter states.
“Notably, this will immunize far more safety rule violations than the model aviation program’s five-year window,” he wrote.
However, rail labor unions involved in the discussions have rejected any limit on the number of rule violations that can be reported without risk of consequences, with the exception that an employee shouldn’t be able to report the same type of known event more than three times in three years.
"In the interest of public safety and with the understanding that society’s tolerance for risks related to freight railroads’ operation is extremely low, permitting an employee to violate the same safety rule three times in three years (or potentially violate three or more different rules three times each in three years) when the railroad already knows about the violation, without any risk of consequence, subjects the railroads, their employees, and the public to an unacceptable degree of risk," Jefferies wrote.
The disagreement over limits on the repeated reporting of known events is at an impasse at the RSAC, he said.
In the meantime, some Class Is "are exploring potentially integrating their own existing and long-standing confidential reporting systems — some of which have allowances for known events — with the FRA’s system. I know individual railroads recently have met, or plan to meet, with FRA to discuss those different approaches," Jefferies added.
And, the AAR "remains hopeful" that the impasse at the RSAC can be resolved, he wrote.
Jefferies' entire letter can be read here.