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PSR’s impact on rail safety ‘inconclusive,’ GAO says

Implementation of precision scheduled railroading (PSR) at the nation’s largest freight railroads has resulted in longer trains and reductions in staff and assets, but the strategy’s impact on rail safety is inconclusive, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Issued last week, the GAO report explores the impact of PSR at six of the seven Class Is that reported implementing the operational strategy. Representatives of railroads, employee unions, shippers and other stakeholders were interviewed in preparation for the report, GAO officials said in a press release.

The report describes stakeholder views on operational changes associated with PSR and what is known about the extent of those changes; the effects of the operational changes on freight-rail safety and what the Federal Railroad Administration has done to monitor those effects; and the impact of the operational changes on freight-rail service, as well as what the Surface Transportation Board has done to monitor the impact.

The overall number of employees at Class Is fell by about 28% from 2011 through 2021, the report states. Further, all seven railroads said they have increased the length of trains in recent years, GAO officials said.

However, FRA officials stated that data from 2011 through 2021 are inconclusive about the extent to which operational changes associated with PSR may have affected rail safety.

Although Class I representatives generally stated that PSR improved or had no effect on railroad safety, rail safety inspectors and employee unions identified safety concerns related to reductions in staff and longer trains. In response, the FRA has several efforts underway to monitor the effects of such changes. Those efforts include analyzing safety data, conducting compliance inspections and reviewing existing regulations.

The FRA also has planned efforts to address potential risks, such as employee fatigue and the effects of longer trains.