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Federal Railroad Administration Releases Final Train Dispatcher & Signalman Certification Rules

WASHINGTON, D.C. – On May 20, 2024, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) announced its final rules for the certification of both Train Dispatchers and Signalmen. Resulting from a mandate within the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA), these rules require railroads to establish formal programs for certification and training, with the aim of improving railroad safety nationwide.  Although the rules mark a significant development for those working as Train Dispatchers and Signalmen, they are not unique among railroad crafts, or other safety-sensitive career fields. To the contrary, the Train Dispatcher and Signalman rules follow earlier certification mandates for locomotive engineers, conductors, airline pilots, and air traffic controllers.

The rules not only demand proactive training from railroads, but also prohibit some of their common unsafe practices. Forcing Dispatchers to work assignments on which they have had insufficient training, for example, is now prohibited. Likewise, railroads will no longer be allowed to consider Dispatchers qualified on a desk assignment, if they have not worked or properly trained on it within 12 months. Since these standards apply to anyone working as a Dispatcher, they effectively prohibit anyone (including non-union managers) who has not completed the stringent certification process from working in that role. In this way, they not only protect the public, but also the union Dispatcher craft.

While the rule does carry a risk of revocation of certification in cases of specific, serious rule violations, the ATDA is prepared to effectively represent its members, should such circumstances arise.  Additionally, ATDA is pursuing Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS) programs on each of the properties where it represents train dispatchers. For events that qualify for coverage within the C3RS programs, dispatchers are protected from both disciplinary action and the revocation of certification. 

Railroads meanwhile, are required to submit their certification plans to ATDA President Ed Dowell for review, prior to them being submitted to the Secretary of Transportation for final approval. This will provide important oversight on behalf of ATDA members. Moving forward, ATDA will continue to advocate for its members at each step, just as it did throughout the development of the rule.

While the rule will bring significant change to the training and qualification environment of Train Dispatchers nationwide, it also reveals the growing gulf between union and non-union Train Dispatchers like few things in recent memory. Railroads who employ non-union train dispatchers may now unilaterally decide who is and who is not “grandfathered in” to certification with no oversight. They may also develop certification/training plans with no review, and perhaps worst of all, non-union Dispatchers may now face the prospect of revocation of certification without a fair hearing, or any representation.

ATDA Train Dispatchers, on the other hand, will be represented throughout the process, just as they were during the rule’s development. As with the FRA’s two-man train crew mandate earlier this year, the Biden Administration directed the FRA to consult closely with labor for input as they developed their Train Dispatcher and Signalmen Certification rule. This process occurred through the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) and numerous other engagement forums. Through this dialogue, the ATDA consistently highlighted the safety-critical nature of train Dispatcher work and exposed the rail industry’s trend towards woefully inadequate Dispatcher training. Now, the final rule reflects these concerns as it formally recognizes the importance of initial certification requirements, territory-specific qualification, and ongoing training relating to technological changes. In each case, the railroads’ obligation to properly equip its Train Dispatchers will now be codified into the Code of Federal Regulations.

Responding to the announcement, ATDA President Dowell said, “This is a day of monumental change for our train dispatcher members.  I also understand that this rule may cause some unease for the hard-working ATDA Train Dispatchers doing such vitally important work every day. To them, I say this: We are reviewing the new rule.  If we need clarification, we will get that from FRA.  And just as soon as we are confident in our interpretations, we will start member education meetings. I believe those will go a long way in helping to alleviate concerns.”