DOT: Railroads Must Maintain, Update Hazmat Shipment Information To Aid First Responders

June 27, 2023
Train derailment in Yellowstone reinforces the need for proposed new rule aimed at improving public safety and preventing environmental impacts from rail disasters.

While workers and authorities are still sorting out the aftermath of rail cars carrying hazardous materials that fell into the Yellowstone River in southern Montana after a bridge collapsed on June 24, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is working on its new rule aimed at improving public safety and preventing environmental impacts by strengthening requirements governing railroads’ provision of hazardous materials information to responders during a hazmat incident.

The proposal, announced June 21, 2023, would require railroads always to maintain — and update in real-time — accurate, electronic information about rail hazmat shipments in a train that would be accessible to authorized emergency response personnel. Railroads would also be required to proactively “push” that information to authorized local first response personnel as soon as the railroad is aware of an accident involving any hazardous materials.

“When railroads transport hazardous materials, they must do so safely and responsibly,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, in a news release. “Our proposal would improve rail safety and help protect communities across the country by requiring railroads to maintain detailed, real-time information about trains carrying hazardous materials.”

“Firefighters are often first to show up at many emergencies, including train derailments and Hazmat incidents. Accurate, up-to-date information about train contents is critical to keep first responders and the communities they serve safe. The IAFF [International Association of Fire Fighters ] strongly supports the Department of Transportation’s new rule that would give firefighters real-time data allowing for safer responses. We applaud the DOT for prioritizing firefighter and public safety,” said Edward A. Kelly, general president, IAFF.

Tactics to help first responders during hazardous materials incidents was a recent topic of Chemical Processing’s Process Safety with Trish and Traci podcast. In that episode, guest Patrick Jessee, commander paramedic for the Bureau of Operations of the Chicago Fire Department, agreed that being able to collect information about extremely hazardous substances and reportable quantities is paramount in how responders react to firefighting and rescue scenarios and respiratory protection.

“We are generally dealing with . . . a few commodities that are being shipped on rail or road or pipeline,” said Jesse. “. . . [H]ow does that chemical react with the environment, whether it be pressure or heat? Or [what if it is] released in the atmosphere and you've got a humid day and you're having a water-reactive chemical interaction going on? There are other considerations that come into play.”

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) would require all railroads to generate, in hard copy and electronic versions, real-time train consist information for shipments containing hazardous materials. Required information would include the quantity and position of the shipment on the train, the shipment’s origin and destination, and a designated emergency point of contact at the railroad.

The proposal responds to congressional mandates in the FAST Act, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendation providing electronic train consist information to emergency officials and personnel that respond to hazmat incidents for railroads, as well as lessons learned from firefighters responding to the February 2023 Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.  Consistent with the broad scope of the NTSB recommendation, PHMSA’s proposal goes beyond the FAST Act mandate that had been limited to Class 1 railroads and extends these new proposed requirements to all railroad classes and requires proactive notification to local first responders in the case of an accident or an incident involving a release or suspected release of a hazardous material.

The proposed rule has been transmitted to the Federal Register. A publication date will be provided when it becomes available along with an opportunity to provide public comment.

About the Author

Traci Purdum | Editor-in-Chief

Traci Purdum, an award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering manufacturing and management issues, is a graduate of the Kent State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Kent, Ohio, and an alumnus of the Wharton Seminar for Business Journalists, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.