Feds ban electronic device use by on-duty rail staff

Posted on May 17, 2010

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a proposed rule to prohibit the improper use of distracting electronic devices by on-duty railroad operating employees.


If adopted, the rules would explicitly restrict and in some cases prohibit the use of cell phones and other hand held devices such as personal digital assistants (PDAs) by safety critical employees, including locomotive engineers, conductors, switchmen, and other train employees.


“Operating a passenger or freight train demands the full and undivided attention of crewmembers at all times. Lives depend on it,” said U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood. “We want to make sure that railroad employees know not to use hand held devices on the job because doing so jeopardizes safety.”


The proposed rule is the latest in a series of actions taken by the Department to combat distracted driving. During a seminal September 2009 Distracted Driving Summit, LaHood announced the Department’s plans to vigorously pursue regulatory and other steps to reduce the risks posed by distracted driving.


The rule would prohibit the use of an electronic device — whether personal or railroad-supplied — if it interferes with that employee’s or another employee’s performance of safety-related duties. Railroad operating employees would be permitted to use cell phones or similar electronic devices under highly limited circumstances.


The notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) provides certain exceptions for watches, calculator use, medical devices, railroad radios, cameras used to document bona fide safety hazards or violations of rail safety laws and various emergency situations.


The regulations would also authorize the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to review a railroad’s training program on the use of electronic devices and require that records be kept documenting employees receiving recurrent training at specified intervals.The NPRM seeks comment on whether violations of the rule should be used as a basis for revoking a locomotive engineer’s certification to operate a locomotive under other FRA regulations.


FRA is proposing to codify a modified version of its 2008 Emergency Order No. 26 (EO 26), which sets forth stringent restrictions on the use of electronic devices by railroad operating employees. FRA issued EO 26 less than three weeks after a September 12, 2008 collision between a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific Railroad freight train in Chatsworth, Calif., killing 25 people.


Preliminary investigative findings revealed that the engineer operating the Metrolink train was text messaging at the time of the collision. While longstanding railroad operating rules and EO 26 have restricted the use of electronic devices, FRA has determined that Federal regulations are necessary to more effectively prevent the inappropriate and unauthorized use of these devices on the job. A final rule would supplant EO 26.


The proposed rule will be published in the Federal Register on May 18. Comments on the proposed rule may be submitted through www.regulations.gov (Docket# No. FRA-2009-0118). The deadline for submitting comments on the proposal is June 17.


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