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Legislative + Litigation Update, June 2024

PUBLISHED TODAY - Hazardous Materials: FAST Act Requirements for Real-Time Train Consist Information


Railtowns.org’s co-Executive Director and Head of Strategy and Policy, Tate Linden, has given it a quick read. If you're a first responder, in law enforcement, or are part of your region's emergency response function, this new rule will change how you respond to rail incidents in your region. Here's what you need to know:


What is it: 


This is a final rule issued by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) of the Department of Transportation (DOT) regarding the requirements for real-time train consist information for hazardous materials in rail transportation. In other words, it’s about the manifest for hazmat materials carried on rail.


At a high level, the rule requires railroads to provide real-time, electronic train consist information to authorized first responders, emergency response officials, and law enforcement personnel. It also mandates that railroads immediately notify the primary Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) responsible for the area where an incident occurs. Track owners are required to receive emergency notification and train consist information. Train crews are responsible for maintaining and updating a hard copy version of the information. Class III railroads have the option to comply with alternative procedures. Overall, this rule aims to enhance emergency response, improve communication and coordination, and ensure the safety of communities with hazmat freight rail.


So, while the majority of the rule impacts the safety protocols of all railroads, these new practices are focused on what matters most to our members - the safety and accessibility of our towns. 


Is this Good for Rail-Connected Communities?


In a practical sense, it’s quite good for railtowns.


It provides a roadmap for all railroads to follow to improve the safety of their host communities, and gives smaller railroads - who are less likely to have the funds or staffing for immediate compliance - a bit more time or flexibility to get things in order. 


While instant compliance industry-wide would protect more lives, the fact that the safety mandate is unfunded makes the situation more complex. Railroad transport of hazmat is acknowledged as safer than by road, so suspending Class II and Class III service until compliance would put our communities at additional risk, and drive up road congestion and shipping costs in the area. 


By following the chosen path, the end result is that railtowns can respond to any rail emergency more effectively, safely, and at greater speed than was possible before, with the change rolling out gradually - first to shipping hubs and finishing with smaller communities.


Are There Downsides?


To be clear, there are real costs. The bulk of the challenges associated with the new rule fall on the shoulders of the railroad industry. They’re saddled with most of the monetary costs and procedural changes. Railtowns.org is thankful to the industry for the improved safety their efforts provide to our member communities, and we acknowledge that even with the phased or adapted implementation, the costs and complexity will be significant. 


For our railtowns, the downsides are comparatively small. The emergency response community will bear most of that limited burden:


  • Documentation: Existing processes will need to be updated to reflect the new protocols.

  • Training: Once formalized, the new protocols must be shared and taught. 

  • Other Costs: It’s not clear whether the new protocols will require new or updated equipment in our communities, but minimally towns will require a phone line and a way of connecting to the consist data at a reasonable speed.


One last issue. There is bound to be confusion as the transition occurs. With an estimated 14,000+ communities in the vicinity of railroad activity, it’s unlikely that every town will have been trained on the new process the first time it’s activated in their region. So, while PSAPs will be notified immediately of the emergency, they or their constituent communities may not have developed or communicated a process for responding to them. This could make for unclear chain of command and response coordination. 


How Does It Impact My Community?


For railtowns, the rule has significant impacts on first responders, emergency response officials, law enforcement, and Primary Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs).

Here’s how:


  1. Local First Responders & Law Enforcement:

    1. They will have access to real-time, electronic train consist information, which includes the identity, quantity, and location of hazardous materials on a train. ​

    2. This information will aid in assessing the potential hazards and risks associated with an accident, incident, or public health or safety emergency involving hazardous materials in rail transportation. ​

    3. It will enable them to make informed decisions regarding response actions, such as selecting the appropriate fire suppression or evacuation measures.

    4. They will receive immediate notification (potentially via PSAP) from the railroad operating the train carrying hazardous materials in the event of an accident or incident involving a release or suspected release of hazardous material. ​

    5. Anticipated impacts: 

    • Faster notification of incidents means an earlier potential response. 

    • Electronically available consist data allows for improved safety for first responders and the communities they serve.

  2. Emergency Response Officials:

    1. They will also have access to real-time, electronic train consist information.

    2. This information assists in coordinating response efforts, ensuring that the appropriate resources and personnel are deployed to mitigate the risks associated with the hazardous materials involved. ​

    3. It can facilitate the development of response plans and strategies tailored to the specific hazards present in an incident involving rail hazmat issues. ​

    4. Anticipated impacts:

    • Real-time access to consist data allows for more effective coordination, communication, and deployment. 

  3. Primary Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs):

    1. PSAPs will receive immediate telephonic notification from the railroad operating the train carrying hazardous materials in the event of an accident or incident involving a release or suspected release of hazardous material. ​

    2. They will also receive the consist information.

    3. This information will enable PSAPs to provide accurate and timely guidance to emergency response personnel and coordinate their response efforts effectively. 

    4. Anticipated impacts:

    • Immediate notification and access to consist data allows the impacted community the best opportunity for effective response.

    • The new rules enable improved coordination and communication across PSAP territories and other agencies that may have authority or responsibility over the incident. 


What if I Have Additional Questions?


That’s what we’re here for. If you work for local or state government in almost any capacity, or otherwise officially represent your community, reach out to us at membership@railtowns.org with your issues and we’ll get back to you ASAP.

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