April 2, 2021: Is it time to check your checklist?

If you are a rail shipper loading or unloading tank cars, there is a very good chance that you have a checklist to ensure that your employees are following your “standard operating procedure” (SOP).  Checklists are always a good reminder for your employees of what is required to ensure a leak-free package and to address company mandates.  Lately however, a significant trend appears to be developing in the industry and it may have an undesired effect on your compliance and safety programs. 

For those of you who have received an inspection report from Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) which has been recommended for a civil penalty, the inspector will likely ask you for a copy of the checklist used for handling this car.  It doesn’t make a difference if the car is outside of your gate or 200 miles away, the Inspector will almost certainly ask for your checklist. 

Companies sometime use this checklist as a form of proof that the defective condition identified while the car was in transit was actually inspected and properly prepared for transportation.   Ask yourself the following question though.  “Has anyone ever checked NO, they did not do their job”.  This is certainly not an accusation that the job was not done and we only have to look back a short time ago when certain “Midland” valves were backing off all by themselves on pressure cars in Liquefied Petroleum Gas service.  Imagine being the loader having to answer to the boss for the unsecure car stopped en route.

As a Supervisor at FRA, I requested that the Inspectors obtain the checklist for a company when a non-complying condition was noted…not as evidence, but to ensure that the company involved was looking at the item in question.  If the item involved was missing from the checklist, the Inspector was directed to counsel the company to assist their compliance program but remember, a checklist is not a federally mandated requirement.  What is required is compliance with the regulations.  Which brings me to my real concern about checklists.

My unscientific observations have shown that checklists for companies loading and unloading tank cars have grown considerably in the last five years.  Checklists, which were designed to remind employees of the company SOP’s that met the compliance standards specified in 49 CFR §§ 173 now include inspection items such as brakes, wheels, safety appliances and my favorite; striker castings.  How and why did this happen?  Again, my unscientific survey has found the following:

  1. Government Inspectors have recommended that an area of the car be inspected.
  2. Railroads and their employees have told the company that they should inspect.
  3. Companies that have had a railcar component problem add it to their checklist. 

When I contemplate the above reasons, it is important to look back at the regulatory scheme to ensure that the responsibility for inspection is appropriately placed.  Persons or entities that are required to perform the inspection must be trained and qualified to ensure that the inspection made is complete and “reliable”.  So, ask yourself the following question(s).


Is my employee capable of inspecting the brake system…if not, what are they inspecting?  Can they tell the difference between a body mounted or truck mounted brake system?  Is air available for the inspection and do they know what constitutes an ineffective brake?  Are the brake shoes in place?  Can they differentiate the friction material from the backing plate?  Are they inspecting for FRA or an Association of American Railroad (AAR) standard?


Will the employee be able to determine whether a wheel has a thin flange or high flange wheel, a potential cause of derailment?  Do they have the gauges to tell the difference?  Can they identify an overheated wheel?  Are the bearings and bearing adapters in proper condition for service?  Are they inspecting for FRA or an AAR standard?


Does the employee have the time to ensure the following?  Do they know what a “sill” step is?  Does the employee know that the dimensions of the step have a minimum cross-sectional area 12 by 112 inches, or equivalent, of wrought iron or steel?  Minimum length of tread, 10, preferably 12, inches. Minimum clear depth, 8 inches?  Do they know that the location is near each end of each side of car, so that there shall be not more than 18 inches from end of car to center of tread of sill step?


As I continually meet with personnel responsible for loading and unloading railroad tank cars, when I see that “striker casting” is part of an inspection I always ask if they can show me where the striker casting is.  In the past 5 years, with dozens and dozens of employees asked, only one could identify where the striker casting was, yet the striker casting was always checked as being inspected.  For those unaware, this photo shows a striker casting. 

Damage to a striker casting shows that a car has either suffered a heavy impact or the draft gear has failed, which allows the back of the coupler to travel to the casting, transmitting the full force of the train or car to which it is coupled or about to be coupled.  Evidence of these impacts should be reported to the railroad or your repair facility so a qualified inspector can assess the appropriate cause of remediation. 

Ultimately, as a company and compelled constituent of the regulatory bodies, you must meet your minimum compliance standards.  This is a time-consuming endeavor when done properly and leaves little time, if any, to comply with regulatory standards that you are not responsible for and honestly, most do not have the training or expertise to do well.  Looking at the examples above, we can classify those defects into the following categories:


For these categories, the railroad is always going to be responsible for cars on its line(s), with two notable exceptions which do not affect loading and unloading of a railroad tank car.  The railroads are not only responsible by regulation, but by law as well, including absolute liability in some circumstances.  What does this mean to you as a company? 

Well, it means that if you are going to assume the responsibility for inspecting an item and proclaiming to all that see your checklist that an item has been inspected, it is paramount that the personnel performing these functions have been fully trained.  It should also be noted that in most cases, whether or not you have been trained, the railroad is still responsible for the defective condition. 

It should also be noted that railroad personnel that inspect and repair railcars spend months in classrooms and on the job training before being qualified under the regulations.  They are experts on the mechanical systems of each and every railcar.  Railroad personnel that move cars in and out of your facilities are also required to inspect railcars and brake systems before a car is moved in their train.  Ask yourself, “Do my loading and unloading personnel really have the knowledge or the time to do a job delegated by federal regulation to my transportation partner?”

Understand, I am not advocating that you ignore the condition of any railcar.  The condition of the railcar could impact the safety of your employees and could determine if your product arrives on time or spends time in a shop being repaired.  If you see a crack in a wheel, missing brake shoe, broken ladder or any other concern, report it to the railroad and note in on the checklist.  If you have to use a ladder to climb up to top of a car or use a sill step to cross over a car safely, you employees should make sure that they are safe to use. 

Ask yourself also, “When an observation is made, like a brake shoe is worn or even missing, is this an inspection?”  I would make the argument that you are not inspecting the brake as brake systems consist of a complex system of valves, piping, piston or pistons, slack adjuster and connecting rods.  When you check brakes on your checklist is this what you’re doing or is it something else?  If it’s something else, this should be covered in your “SOP”, but I reiterate once again, that brakes are a railroad responsibility. 

If you leave those items that are railroad responsibility for inspection by the railroad, you will certainly have more time to ensure that the car being offered for transportation will not result in a non-accident release.

Finally, ensure that your employees are trained on your SOP and not just the checklist.  A checklist should be a reminder of the function to be performed so that when I check YES for an item such as “liquid valve secure”, the closure plug is tool tight and attached by a safety chain, the valve handle is closed, the valve packing fasteners are in place and secure and the fasteners that hold the valve to its mount are also secure. 

If you would like to discuss checklists for tank car loading and unloading further click the photo below.  One of our industry experts can you help save time and money, by refining your checklist to improve efficiency, assist in hands-on training of your employees and help them implement your compliance program with laser-like precision to eliminate non-accident releases. 

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