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FRA adopts crossing emergency notification rule; STB addresses BNSF's coal dust mitigation methods


Yesterday, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) announced it proposed a rule that would make it easier for the public to report unsafe conditions at grade crossings.  The rule would require railroads to establish toll-free telephone numbers the public can use to report malfunctioning warning signals, disabled vehicles blocking crossings or any other unsafe crossing conditions.
If a railroad would receive a call about a malfunctioning signal or stalled vehicle, train engineers in the area would immediately be notified about the unsafe condition to prevent an accident, according to the FRA.

“With a uniform emergency notification system all railroads must follow, we could cut the number of highway-rail crossing incidents,” said FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo in a prepared statement.
The proposed rule would require railroads to post a toll-free telephone number and the FRA’s national crossing inventory identification number at every highway-rail and authorized pathway grade crossing. Currently, all the Class Is and larger passenger railroads have some type of notification system in place, but not all smaller railroads do, FRA officials said.

Based on national crossing inventory data from 2009’s end, the proposed rule would affect 211,401 highway-rail and pathway grade crossings, and 594 railroads, the FRA estimates.

Meanwhile, the Surface Transportation Board (STB) ruled that BNSF Railway Co.’s attempt to mitigate coal dust problems were not reasonable even though the dust poses a serious safety issue. Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. had asked the board to prevent BNSF from using a wayside emission monitoring system to measure coal dust blowing from the top of coal cars because, if a specified emission standard was exceeded, the co-op would have been subject to certain enforcement measures.

The STB ruled that BNSF can require shippers to take "reasonable measures" to address coal dust problems, but the provisions of the Class I's tariff aren’t reasonable given the “level of uncertainty” and available dust-control methods, according to the board’s decision.

“Under the challenged tariff, the railroad would accept rail cars loaded with coal and then inform coal shippers at a later date whether and to what extent coal dust was released during transport," the decision states. "In addition, the tariff does not explain what consequences coal shippers would face if they are found to have tendered loaded coal cars to the railroad that subsequently released coal dust during transport.”

The STB expects railroads and shippers to jointly develop a solution that ensures loaded rail cars are fit for safe travel and spillage is minimized during transit, board members said in the decision.

BNSF plans to take steps to comply with the STB's decision by reassessing the specific implementing tariff rule, BNSF officials said in a prepared statement.

“We will continue to work with our customers to identify and promptly implement coal dust containment measures that will satisfy the STB-recognized need for coal customers to prevent coal dust emissions,” they said.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 3/4/2011