US railroad companies will be required to develop certification and training programmes for dispatch and signal employees under new rules unveiled by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). 

The final rules are part of the FRA’s push to improve the safety of US railroads and are the first ever to mandate specific training requirements and knowledge checks for the two groups of workers. 

US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said: “Railroaders and the communities through which trains run need to know that they have competent, qualified teams managing railroad operations, and the final rules announced today will help guarantee that those working on or living near the tracks have their safety in good hands.” 

Certification programmes submitted to the FRA must evaluate the knowledge, skills and prior safety records of dispatchers and signal employees, as well as ensuring workers receive further periodical training on operating rules and new technology. 

Programmes developed by railroads must also be submitted to the labour organisations that represent their workers to allow the unions to provide comment to the regulator within 60 days. 

The rules were largely welcomed by union groups, including the American Train Dispatchers Association (ATDA) President Ed Dowell who described the publication as a “day of monumental change” for the union’s members. 

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However, Dowell expressed concern about the impact of the rules on non-union dispatchers, which ATDA warned may be subject to training plans that have not been reviewed, and face the prospect of losing their certification without a fair hearing. 

ATDA said the final rules “reveal the growing gulf between union and non-union train dispatchers like few things in recent memory.” 

It added: “Railroads [that] employ non-union train dispatchers may now unilaterally decide who is and who is not “grandfathered in” to certification with no oversight.” 

The rules on dispatch and signal training follow the regulator’s publication of rules on other major safety topics, including establishing requirements for train crew size and requiring the installation of cameras on all passenger locomotives.

Additionally, the FRA recently welcomed Norfolk Southern as the first Class I railroad to join its Confidential Close Call Reporting System which is designed to allow whistleblowers to confidentially report unsafe events.