UPDATE: BNSF Petitions FRA to Expand its Wayside Detector Pilot Program Yet Again

On April 12, 2019, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) granted the BNSF Railway Company (BNSF) a test waiver to conduct a pilot program to “demonstrate that the use of wheel temperature detectors (WTD) to prove brake health effectiveness (BHE) would improve safety, reduce risks to employees, and provide cost savings to the industry.” This regulatory relief applied to certain intermodal trains on the carrier’s Southern Transcon Route originating in California and traveling via Belen, New Mexico, to Chicago, Illinois (and vice versa).

In a petition dated April 15, 2020, BNSF next requested that FRA modify the granted regulatory relief to expand its pilot program to include additional origination and departure points along the carrier’s Southern Transcon Route and origination and departure points on BNSF’s Northern Intermodal Route, between Portland, Oregon; Seattle and Tacoma, Washington; the Greater Chicago, Illinois, region (S, Q, and Z Trains); and any unit coal and grain trains that could traverse this northern route.

On May 27, 2020, FRA granted BNSF an expansion of the previous relief to include additional origination and departure points along the carrier’s Southern Transcon Route and for BNSF’s Northern Intermodal Route to operate intact with up to approximately 2,600 miles between brake tests. The expansion onto the Northern Intermodal Route operated under the following conditions. First, each test train would receive a Class I airbrake test and pre-departure test at Portland, Oregon; Seattle or Tacoma, Washington; or in the Greater Chicago, Illinois region. Next, test trains would then pass WTD monitors located both east and west of Havre, Montana, to record braking performance through power braking events. Finally, if there was any doubt about WTD system performance, reliability and data quality or fewer than 95 percent of the brake valves in the consist have qualified brakes as verified by the automated WTD system, a manual intermediate inspection would be performed at Havre, Montana, (the designated inspection point).

Together, the initial relief granted by FRA on April 12, 2019 and subsequent expansion of the waiver by FRA on May 27, 2020, provided BNSF certain relief from 49 CFR 232.15, Movement of defective equipment; 49 CFR 232.103(f), General requirements for all train brake systems; 49 CFR 232.213, Extended haul trains; and a statutory exemption from the requirements of title 49, United States Code section 20303.

On March 18, 2021, BNSF again petitioned FRA for an expansion of the current test waiver to include additional trains from compliance of certain provisions of the Federal railroad safety regulations contained at 49 CFR part 232, Brake system safety standards for freight and other non-passenger trains and equipment; end-of-train devices. In its current petition, BNSF stated that the test waiver committee for BHE has been actively reviewing the data generated since August 2018, and during that time, BNSF has tested more than 5,500 trains. BNSF also contended that the test waiver on the Southern Transcon intermodal trains and the Northern Transcon grain trains was a success and now sought to expand its BHE initiative onto BNSF’s coal network in a two-phase program. The first addition would be the Pike’s Peak route with detectors at Monument and Castle Rock, and, the second would be the addition of the Sand Hills route with detectors at testing sites.

BNSF also provided that coal trains in this program would be subject to the same requirements for training completion of all related work groups, and the detectors would not be activated until training records were provided to the test waiver committee. BNSF further claimed that it was prepared to begin training on BHE processes in Denver, Colorado; Alliance, Nebraska; Temple, Texas; and Amarillo, Texas, back in March and May 2021.

The Brotherhood Railway Carman (BRC) has filed comments opposing BNSF’s current petition to expand the test waiver. BRC representatives have attended the test waiver committee meetings, participated in the conference calls regarding the test waiver and challenged BNSF’s position on the processes that needed to be implemented to collect accurate information for the test waiver database. The test waiver committee consists of representatives from the railroad industry, rail labor and inspectors from the FRA.

During several of the test waiver committee meetings, both the BRC representatives and the FRA investigators made several points of concern regarding BNSF’s current test waiver as well as with the proposed expansion. The principle concerns were as follows:

  • First, in the current request for expansion, any cars that pass the WTD monitors, after receiving the initial QMI inspection and fail, will ultimately be traveling upwards of 2,300 miles before being inspected again;
  • Second, this test waiver has, from the start, failed to address the issues of cars having defects other than brake health and wheel defects;
  • Third, current trains operating under this test waiver are not adhering to Condition .7 of the test waiver guidelines which requires certain inspections be performed on the test trains and that BNSF provide the inspectors with all WTD information prior to conducting inspections;
  • Fourth, BNSF has also not been adhering to the modified Condition .15 of the test waiver guidelines which requires inspectors to perform a Class I or transfer train brake test prior to moving defective cars to be repaired before the cars are added into trains; and
  • Finally, the FRA inspectors provided that not only were they against an expansion of the test waiver because it is not in the best interest for public safety, they also provided that they did not even have enough resources to monitor the waivers that have already been granted to BNSF.

“BNSF has proven that there is no benefit to continue this test waiver due to the carrier’s repeated violations of the test conditions that FRA set forth in their decision letters,” says BRC General President Rich Johnson. “To allow the current waiver to continue or to add more trains to the test waiver would not be in the best interest of public safety at this time.”

Click here to read BRC’s comments

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Updated: August 24, 2021 — 12:27 pm