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FRA proposes rules for certifying train dispatchers, signal employees

The Federal Railroad Administration is proposing rules to formalize the certification process for two groups of craft employees working on U.S. freight railroads.

Each proposed rule — one for train dispatchers and the other for signal employees — calls for railroads to develop programs to certify these individuals. The programs would verify that workers have the knowledge, skills and abilities to perform job functions safely and comply with federal regulations. Both proposed rules also call for the railroads to develop a formal process to revoke certification for workers violating job requirements.

Dispatchers are responsible for facilitating safe operations on the freight rail network, including coordinating emergency services in response to rail incidents. Signal employees are responsible for installing, testing, troubleshooting, repairing and maintaining railroad signal systems, according to FRA. Signal employees perform these functions for highway-rail grade crossing systems, contingency detection devices, broken rail detection systems, power-assisted switches and switch point indicators, the agency said.

Should FRA proceed with both rules, Class I railroads and Amtrak would have to comply within eight months after the final rules’ effective dates, while Class II and Class III railroads would have to comply within 16 months.

While the topic of rail safety catapulted into the public spotlight following the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) train in East Palestine, Ohio, these two proposed regulations are in response to the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which required the U.S. transportation secretary to submit a report to Congress on whether certain railroad crafts would benefit from certification programs as a way to reduce rail-related accidents.

Former Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who served in President Barack Obama’s administration, submitted a report to Congress on Nov. 4, 2015, suggesting that train dispatchers and signal employees should have certification programs.


Certifying certain craft employees became one of the topics discussed by FRA’s rail safety advisory committee through 2019, although union representatives asked for the discussion to be withdrawn. FRA renewed the discussion in 2021, with union and rail industry representatives providing feedback through 2022, according to the Wednesday notices in the Federal Register.

The notices also mentioned how positive train control, a federally mandated technology that seeks to prevent train collisions, has complicated the job functions of train dispatchers and signal employees.

“Over the past 5 to 10 years, the job of a railroad dispatcher has become more complex and demanding. The number of dispatchers has decreased over the years, and dispatcher territory is expanding due to this decrease,” said the notice for the proposed rule to certify train dispatchers. “Also, with the advancement of Positive Train Control (PTC), dispatchers must understand the interface between the computer-aided dispatching system and the train control system, with respect to the safe movement of trains and other on-track equipment.”

FRA is taking public comments for both proposed rules through July 31.