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Federal Railroad Administration calls for reevaluation of ‘train makeup’ amid derailment issues

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is calling for a reevaluation of “train makeup” on Thursday in the aftermath of a series of derailments.

The FRA on Thursday issued a safety advisory to raise concerns about the makeup of trains and make sure that railroads “exercise due diligence” and are proactive in addressing possible safety risks in operating train builds. The advisory states that the agency has observed an increasing trend in both build and makeup being potential causes or contributing factors to derailments.

The advisory mentions a few notable incidents in recent years where trains derailed, several of which were confirmed to result from issues with the train makeup.

Derailments moved into the national spotlight after the Norfolk Southern train derailed in early February in East Palestine, Ohio. The train was carrying hazardous materials and forced local residents to evacuate for a few days and face lingering symptoms of possible exposure to the chemicals.

That crash was not mentioned in the advisory, but most of the examples mentioned did have at least some hazardous materials in train cars, even if those cars did not derail.

The FRA said an analysis revealed several common themes among the crashes, including that each one had 125 cars or more, all had much more than the maximum allowed 4,000 trailing tons and an empty car was the first to derail in all cases. Five out of six reviewed also had mixed freight trains, which usually require a more complex train makeup, and had hazmat cars, increasing the potential risks associated with a derailment.

The analysis led the FRA to make six safety recommendations for railroads. The agency urged them to review and update train makeup policies, procedures and guidelines, ensure all workers involved in train makeup decisions and operations receive appropriate training, guidance and supervision and create a system to regularly monitor and assess train makeup practices.

It also called on the railroads to encourage communication among all stakeholders to make sure everyone has a “comprehensive understanding” of train makeup factors, implement strategies to lessen the risks associated with train build factors and improve investigation procedures to specifically address train makeup.