Rail safety and training

by Harry Rupe
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Most industrial sites that have rail as a part of their operation move their own rail cars in one way or another. By using proper and appropriate operating procedures, employees will be safer, and the company’s bottom line will be enhanced.

As rail industry rules and procedures are ever changing, it is critical to have a connection with a rail professional in order to stay current with what is acceptable in the railroad industry today. That way, it is possible to change the operations and procedures as change happens. The railroad industry has had about 180 years to adjust, amend, and change work rules in order to prevent accidents and injuries.

Information is power. With up-to-date information, workers can become productive, motivated, and can thrive. Well informed workers become leaders and will bring success to a company.


When it comes to rail operation, there are several things to remember:

1. Railroad work can be a very unforgiving environment, so focus on the task at hand.

2. Pay strict attention to the task at hand, and beware of multitasking.

3. Always be aware of the work location in relation to what you, and others, are doing.

4. Be aware that these locations and situations will change.

5. Practice good communication skills to ensure everyone understands the current plan.

Managers must ensure what they say and what they do are the same. Walk the talk. In order to do that, a manager should know what employees know, including how to do their job if it is needed. Insist on safety and be prepared to back up employees if safety concerns are mentioned.

Implementing up-to-date safety rules and procedures, and enforcing those rules and procedures, will reduce the amount of human failure incidents at a facility. By avoiding the human failure incidents, it is possible to avoid the costs associated with those failures like rail car and track repairs, derailment cleanup, personal injuries, and the loss of productivity caused by the incident.


When it comes to safety rules and procedures, there are several basic rules that will apply no matter the situation.

Communications. If the facility has a motive power operator (locomotive, shuttle wagon, track mobile, tractor with or without a knuckle), and a ground spotter, it must be understood that the ground spotter is in charge of all rail moves. The moves are communicated to the operator by way of hand or radio signals. These signals will never be mixed, one will be selected prior to the move, and all will understand that. The work plan will always be discussed prior to making any moves, and the discussion will include all crew members.

Whenever a spotter gives a command to an operator, he must communicate “direction and distance.” If communication is broken during the move, the operator will be stopped in one-half the distance specified until communication is restored.

When a spotter needs to be on, under, or between the equipment for any reason, he needs to communicate to the operator that he wants to establish a safe zone to accomplish this work. Some in the railroad industry refer to this as the “red zone.”

The spotter first asks to establish the red zone, at which time the operator will set the brakes, and place the machine in neutral. The operator will report back that he has done those things. It is then imperative that the operator touches nothing until the spotter has reported that he is clear of that red zone. Only then can any moves be made, and only on the spotters command.

On and around equipment. Always expect movement anywhere, anytime and from any direction. Do not get on or off moving equipment. In addition:

If riding the equipment is allowed, only ride the side ladder maintaining three points of contact (one foot and two hands, or two feet and one hand), and always face the direction of movement.
When dismounting the equipment, check ground conditions, and ensure one foot is firmly on the ground before letting go.

If crossing through the equipment is necessary, choose a rail car with a crossover platform. Establish the red zone, and then mount the rail car climbing the ladder to the level of the crossover platform. Move to the end of the rail car and across to the other side maintaining three points of contact, dismounting from the side ladder.

Never step from one rail car to another, and never step on the uncoupling lever or drawbar assembly.

Never go between two pieces of equipment unless they are separated by at least 50 feet, and never go around the end of a piece of standing equipment unless there is a 25-foot separation between the person and the equipment.

Always walk straight across the tracks, and never step on the rails, switch rods or frogs.

Operating switches and hand brakes. When operating switches, check conditions in the area, looking for any damage to the switch.

Inspect the switch points before and after operating the switch.
Always stop the equipment clear (short of) the switch to prevent binding.
Use proper techniques for operating that specific type of switch.
Know the difference between a facing and trailing point switch.
Always watch clearances so equipment won’t be left to foul equipment on an adjacent track.
When operating hand brakes, always establish the red zone first.
Operate hand brakes from a position on the rail car unless a brake stick is being used.
Mount the rail car and climb to the level of the hand brake. Move to the end ladder, placing the left hand and left foot on the appropriate ladder rungs, the right foot on the brake platform, and turning the wheel with the right hand, keeping both hands out of the wheel spokes.
Air hoses and angle cocks. When handling air hoses and angle cocks, make sure the equipment is stopped and establish the red zone.

When coupling air hoses, keep one foot outside the rail. After the hoses are coupled, have both feet outside the rail, and open the angle cock slowly, listening for any escaping air. If escaping air can be heard, close the angle cock and wait for the air to stop blowing before trying to make any adjustments

Additional items. Make all rail moves at a speed that makes it possible to stop in one half the range of vision, taking all things into consideration like weather, day, night, curves etc. Always remember when coupling, make coupling at a speed of 4 mph or less, and always stretch the slack to ensure the coupling was made.

Another safety aspect to be aware of is any interface with vehicle traffic on or near a facility, including roads within a plant where truck drivers or maintenance vehicles will be. Workers have an obligation to protect the vehicle drivers when crossing those roads. Blow the horn prior to and until the road is occupied. Headlights need to be on bright, and if a bell is available, ring it.

Vehicle drivers have a tendency to want to “beat the train,” so extreme caution is needed, especially if the ground spotter needs to be there to protect that road.

This has been a brief look at some basic rail safety rules and procedures that can be put in place right now. The rail industry is very complex, and this only touches the tip of the iceberg. There are several things you can do to improve your rail operations, with the help of a railroad professional. These include:

1. Instituting a rail operations rule book so all players have the guidelines they need.

2. Create a Standard Operations Procedures Manual for all rail work.

3. Conduct on site assessments from a rail professional to see where a facility stands based on industry standards.

4. Train and inform managers on all aspects of a facility’s rail operations.

5. Conduct behavior observations of employees for compliance to the policies.

Harry Rupe has worked in the rail industry since he was 18. He had a 37-year career with Class 1 railroads and is now a consultant with Roadway Worker Training, St. Augustine, Florida, U.S. (www.rrtrainers.com). Rupe helps private industries manage their rail operations with the latest in safety and operating procedures. He can be reached at rupeontrack@reagan.com.