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Why today’s freight rail is safer than ever

This feature was produced by Association of American Railroads, and does not reflect the opinions or point of view of Vox Media or Vox Creative. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

Rail has been moving goods from here to there since the 1800s, but don't let its age fool you.  The railroad industry is nimble, technologically savvy and in many ways ahead of its time.

Today, in fact, railroads are more relevant than ever before, moving staggering amounts of goods and materials across the continent so that businesses can thrive and consumers can enjoy the bounty of a productive economy.

America counts on the freight rail system and its strong, healthy network of 1.4 million rail cars that move along 140,000 miles of track in the U.S. every day. Railroads have invested heavily in this network: $575 billion in private funds — not taxpayer dollars — since being partially deregulated in 1980. This year alone, the industry plans to spend $29 billion to maintain and modernize its infrastructure and equipment.

Today's railroads are also developing and deploying state-of-the-art technology, implementing rigorous safety standards and engaging key players to ensure the industry is safer and more reliable than ever before. Here's how they are doing it:

Employing 21st Century Technology

Inspecting this massive network of track, tunnels and bridges is no small feat. So the industry uses high-tech vehicles armed with laser sensors and trackside detectors to identify wear-and-tear on track and equipment. Ground-penetrating radar also helps identify problems that can destabilize tracks, while bridge-monitoring devices that are being developed will provide real-time data about bridge health. This cutting-edge technology is tested in Pueblo, Colo., home to the industry's Transportation Technology Center Inc. (TTCI), a world-renowned rail research facility.

Setting High Standards

Railroads adhere to strict federal safety standards while employing aggressive protocols for employee training, train speeds, inspections, rail yard practices and locomotive operation, to name a few. These self-imposed initiatives often go above and beyond what is required by federal regulations. Railroads recently petitioned the government for more aggressive design and construction standards for rail cars used to move crude oil and other flammable materials.

Pivoting to Safely Meet the Challenges of the Energy Revolution

The U.S. has ramped up production of petroleum and natural gas, and the freight rail industry is integral in moving this lifeblood of the economy. As a result of a surge in crude oil by rail shipments in recent years, the industry undertook a top-to-bottom review of operating protocols and implemented enhanced procedures to make sure that the movement of crude oil by rail meets the highest standards for safety and efficiency. From advocating upgrades for all cars that carry crude oil to coordinating closely with first responders along these routes, the industry is aggressively addressing safety every step of the way.

Preparing Communities with Information and Training

Preparation is essential for a rapid and effective response in the event of an incident, which is why freight railroads actively coordinate with state emergency planning committees and local first responders to develop response plans in the event of an accident. The freight rail industry trains tens of thousands of first responders each year through individual railroad efforts, industry partnerships and at TTCI. This precise training coordinated by the industry's top experts prepares first responders for scenarios ranging from common leaks to derailments. Knowing that every second counts, railroads also developed an app to give first responders immediate access to real-time data about the contents of individual railcars on a train.

These and myriad other efforts illustrate the freight rail industry's relentless approach to safety — one in which good is never good enough. After all, American businesses and consumers place immense trust in freight rail each day, and the industry does not take this trust for granted.


This feature was produced by Association of American Railroads, and does not reflect the opinions or point of view of Vox Media or Vox Creative. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

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