New safety rules set training standards for train dispatchers and signal repairmen

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — New federal certification rules finalized Monday for train dispatchers and signal repairmen will set minimum standards to counteract the investor pressure on railroads to continually cut costs while making sure those employees have the skills they need to operate all the high-tech systems on today’s trains.

The new Federal Railroad Administration rules are the latest steps in the agency’s broad efforts to improve rail safety since the disastrous East Palestine derailment in Ohio last year although these rules were in the works years before that train crash.

FRA Administrator Amit Bose said in an interview with The Associated Press that both these crafts of workers are responsible for some of the advanced technology railroads rely on like the assortment of trackside detectors that help spot mechanical problems before they can cause derailments, so it made sense to set certification standards for them.

“Here’s the bottom line for me, we want to make sure that qualified workers are doing the jobs that they are specialists in to do,” Bose said. And even though technology can help railroads improve safety, he said the FRA wants to make sure that it supplements but doesn't replace existing efforts like visual inspections.

Bose said dispatchers play a key role in operating the automatic braking system known as Positive Train Control that Congress required the railroads to install. Plus, modern dispatching centers are filled with banks of massive monitors at each desk that dispatchers use to keep track of the trains moving across their territories.

Bose said the railroads are concerned about safety, but too often they only do the minimum required as they try to control costs to boost profits.

“The industry has, learned a lot, since East Palestine and has implemented and redoubled, its efforts on safety,” Bose said. “We have to remain vigilant on safety 24 hours, seven days a week. I’m encouraged by some of the efforts, from the railroad companies, but again, there’s always more, to do.”

But the changes railroads announced after that Ohio derailment focused attention nationwide on railroad safety haven't made a major difference in safety statistics. And larger reforms have stalled in Congress because Republicans want to wait until after the National Transportation Safety Board issues its final report on the derailment next month before considering changes.

The Association of American Railroads trade group said in a statement that the new dispatcher and signalmen rules aren't likely to make a significant improvement in safety because the railroads already train their employees.

“Ensuring all employees are well-trained and qualified to safely execute their duties is essential," AAR spokeswoman Jessica Kahanek said. "This is why railroads invest heavily to ensure our people have the necessary skills and knowledge to maintain safe operations and successfully perform their work."

But the American Train Dispatchers Association union praised the new rule because it should prevent the common practices of forcing dispatchers to work assignments they aren't adequately trained for and keep managers from working in a dispatcher role if they're not properly certified. And both the union and federal regulators will get a chance to review railroads' certification plans before they take effect.