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C3RS: Railroad Safety Revisited—or Not

As we approach the one-year anniversary of the devastating train derailment that thrust the small community of East Palestine, Ohio, and its people into the media, it’s fair to ask, what is the status of America’s Class I railroads’ commitments to join the well-established Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS)?

Writing on behalf of its Class I member railroads, Ian Jefferies, President and CEO of the Association of American Railroads (AAR), authored a March 2, 2023 letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation and an Aug. 24, 2023 joint letter to the DOT and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). Both letters seemed to offer reassurance that the Class I’s were, indeed, committed to joining and participating in C3RS. However, reservations with the existing program were expressed in the first letter and the second spoke of “… an unexpected hurdle …” having emerged.

The so-called unexpected hurdle is not unexpected at all, since it was also alluded to in Jefferies’ first letter, therein referred to as “addressing repeated unsafe conduct.” In his second letter, Jefferies asserts the following: “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.” He goes on to justify, without evidence data, the railroads’ use of “known event” information and employee discipline as important tools that railroads use to eliminate unsafe conditions that put their employees and the American public at risk.

Those could be termed to be responses to the call for the Class I’s to commit to C3RS, or they could be viewed as excuses for the delays in doing so. Knowing what I know, from my long-time involvement in railroad industry safety and accident prevention measures, I see them as excuses for delays, perhaps with the intention to avoid program participation, as the ultimate goal.

Why in the world would I, or anyone for that matter, say such things? Because, with respect to “known events”, there are, in many cases, events and issues that are either not known, ignored or even facilitated by railroad management. We need look no further than the risks to safe train operations already identified in the lead-up to the East Palestine derailment. Matters identified, even prior to the NTSB’s Final Report on the derailment, include but are not necessarily limited to the following:

  1. Increased train length and the inclusion and placement of hazardous material cars in trains.
  2. The reduction of specialized train/car inspection personnel and measures to limit the amount of time allocated to train/car inspections.
  3. The number and spacing of train defect condition detectors, despite increases in train length and tonnage.
  4. Establishment of various train/car defect conditions that would trigger warnings and require trains to be stopped and inspected by train crews.
  5. Remote oversight of failed equipment oversight by qualified personnel with effective guidelines for when train crews must be contacted and warned of potential risks to safe operations of their trains.

All these conditions were known to railroad management, because they were the ones that created and implemented them.

Jefferies, on behalf of AAR members I presume, continues to raise the matter of employee discipline, or the lack of it due to C3RS, as an “unexpected hurdle.” That is utter nonsense. That matter was thoroughly hashed out in the many years it took to design, facilitate, and implement the program through the joint efforts of Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, the FRA and railroad management and labor. See Confidential Close Call Reporting Systems (C3RS), Lessons Learned Evaluation  Final Report  DOT/FRA/ORD  19/01, Final Report, February 2019.

Also, note the first word in C3RS: “Confidential.” If such reports are, as they have been from the program’s inception, confidential, then there is no way for railroad management to identify reporters, or to know if they are making repeated reports of the same safety concerns or attempting to avoid discipline by reporting several times on the same rule violation. Believe me, as a direct participant in the entire C3RS implementation process, labor is never going to agree to this management demand, nor should they, because that would be the end of the program.

If railroad management sticks to unrealistic demands that fail to embrace the basic tenants of the long-established C3RS program project, they will not be participating, and public safety will remain more at risk, as a result.