Virginia Rail Safety Inspections

Courtesy Norfolk Southern

by James C. Sherlock

After the Ohio disaster, it is timely to review rail safety in Virginia.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) of the U.S. Department of Transportation is the federal rail safety regulator in cooperation with state authorities.

FRA’s Office of Railroad Safety employs 400 railway inspectors. Federal safety management teams are organized by railroad or type of railroad.

The FRA summary of State rail safety participation states:

state programs emphasize planned, routine compliance inspections; however, States may undertake additional investigative and surveillance activities consistent with overall program needs and individual State capabilities.

FRA both conducts and pays for training of state inspectors.

Code of Federal Regulations 49 CFR Part 212 provides state rail safety participation regulations.

Railroad Regulation represents one of the original areas of responsibility assigned to the State Corporation Commission (SCC) when it was created by the Virginia Constitution of 1902.

Virginia statutory authority is found in Code of Virginia Title 56 Chapter 13.

Virginia today has two Class I (major) railroads (Norfolk Southern and CSXT), nine Class II (short line) railroads, and more than 6,700 miles of track.

The SCC Division of Utility and Railroad Safety administers three safety programs: Gas and Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Safety, Railroad Safety and Underground Utility Damage Prevention.

I offer below the Summary of 2021 activities provided in response to a FOIA request. The following is a quote.

The Rail Safety Section of the Division in coordination with the Federal Railroad Administration, helps ensure the safe operation of jurisdictional railroads by conducting inspections of tracks, signals, highway rail grade crossings, railroad operations, shipment of hazardous materials by rail, motive power and equipment and investigations of certain accidents and citizen complaints.

The Division’s inspections involve more than 4,100 miles of track, over 4,200 highway and private grade crossings, thousands of rolling stock, which also include tank cars, and intermodal containers and 69 yard facilities.

Summary of 2021 Activities

  • Number of Hazmat Units (note 5) Inspected – 9,173
  • Number of Track Units (note 6) Inspected – 8,794
  • Number of Locomotive and Car Units (note 7) Inspected – 30,455
  • Number of Operating Practice Units (note 8) Inspected – 810
  • Number of Signal/Grade Crossing (note 9) Units Inspected –  1,128
  • Number of Defects Noted –  5,908
  • Number of Violations Cited – 95
  • Number of Accidents/NRC Incidents Investigated – 19
  • Number of Complaints Investigated –  43

note 5 Each hazmat record review along with each visual inspection of a tank car, bulk/non-bulk package and/or freight container is considered a hazmat unit.
note 6 Each mile of track, record, crossing at grade, among other things, is considered a track unit.
note 7 Each locomotive, car, motive power equipment record, among other things, is considered a unit.
note 8 Each location where operations are or may occur such as switchyards, field offices, yard offices, trains, yard crew locations and dispatching are considered an operating practice unit.
note 9 Each signal/switch/grade crossing record review along with each visual inspection of a signal/grade crossing component is considered a signal/grade crossing unit.

Each railroad also has its own safety inspections driven both by management and by their insurers.

But, personally, I had no idea that rail safety in Virginia was subject to that level of inspection by the state.

I am happy to learn about it and congratulate the SCC for their work.