Malfunctions cause trains to lose emergency braking capabilities in cold weather

Washington, D.C. – The president of the SMART Transportation Division, Jeremy Ferguson, is calling on the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to issue an emergency order requiring that outdated air brake valves on freight train cars be replaced immediately.

Components of the model DB-10 air brake valves, which are common on a variety of freight cars in service, have a fixed lifespan. However, it is estimated tens of thousands of these valves have remained in use far beyond that span. In cold weather, the valves can leak air, causing freight train operators to lose emergency braking capabilities.

“Our members are operating two- and three-mile-long trains, sometimes carrying hazardous materials, through communities all across this country. Having the ability to engage emergency brakes on freight locomotives isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity,” Ferguson said. “It’s time for the FRA to ensure the valves that enable emergency braking on freight locomotives work properly.”

The rail industry is not unaware of this critical safety issue.

In 2013, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) issued a maintenance advisory to replace and repair the malfunctioning valves. Recommendations were made to carriers about rectifying the situation, but so far, fixes have not been satisfactory.

Freight rail carriers used to swap out old valves regularly. However, recently, too many railroads have been reluctant to replace old parts in a thorough way because of the potential delays it could cause to customers. Today, the DB-10 valves are replaced on a catch-as-can basis, which opens the door to serious safety risks.

“The FRA and the Association of American Railroads have known about this issue for too long and have done too little to address it in a timely fashion,” Ferguson said. “The safety of the public and all railroaders should never be compromised for the sake of productivity.”

Ferguson’s petition to FRA comes after emergency stopping capability was lost on two different trains in North Dakota because of outdated DB-10 air brake valves.

The union is also encouraging its members to start documenting and reporting safety concerns around the valves.

“The public and employees have the right to be safe. I can think of nothing more important than having emergency capability,” said SMART-TD’s Dakotas State Legislative Director Jim Chase.