Tag Archives: Rail industry lobby

AP: Railroads beat back new safety rules after derailments

Repost from the Boston Herald

AP: Railroads beat back new safety rules after derailments

By Matthew Brown and Michael Kunzelman, December 05, 2015
FILE -In this Monday, Feb. 23, 2015, file photo, clean up continues near Mount Carbon, W.Va., where a train derailed and sent a tanker with crude oil into the Kanawha River. A little-known truth about North American railroads: No rules govern when rail becomes too worn down. Since 2000, U.S. officials blamed rail wear as the direct cause of 111 derailments causing $11 million in damage. (AP Photo/Chris Tilley, File)

A pair of train derailments in 2012 that killed two people in Maryland and triggered a fiery explosion in Ohio exposed a little-known and unsettling truth about railroads in the U.S. and Canada: No rules govern when rail becomes too worn down to be used for hauling hazardous chemicals, thousands of tons of freight or myriad other products on almost 170,000 miles of track.

U.S. transportation officials moved to establish universal standards for when such steel gets replaced, but resistance from major freight railroads killed that bid, according to Associated Press interviews with U.S. and Canadian transportation officials, industry representatives and safety investigators.

Now, following yet another major accident linked to worn-out rails — 27 tanker cars carrying crude oil that derailed and exploded in West Virginia earlier this year — regulators are reviving the prospect of new rules for worn rails and vowing they won’t allow the industry to sideline their efforts.

“We try to look at absolutely every place where we can affect and improve safety,” said Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg. “Track generally is the place that we’re focusing at the moment, and it’s clearly overdue. Rail head wear is one place in particular that we feel like needs to be addressed as soon as possible.”

An official announcement on the agency’s intentions to revisit rail wear is expected by the end of the year.

In the meantime, federal regulators haven’t taken the positive steps that they need to, said Ronald Goldman, an attorney for the families of the two 19-year-old women who died in a 2012 derailment outside Baltimore.

“It’s a lack of will, not a lack of ability, in my opinion,” he added.

Industry supporters argue that the seven major freight railroads in the U.S. and Canada are in the best position to know what is going on with their lines, including when they need to be replaced or have the maximum speeds for trains traveling on them lowered. They also note a long-term decline in accidents that has reduced the frequency of derailments by more than 40 percent since 2000.

All sides agree it’s difficult to pinpoint how many accidents are tied to worn rail. Since 2000, U.S. officials blamed rail wear as the direct cause of 111 derailments causing $11 million in damage.

That’s less than 1 percent of all accidents, yet it masks a broader safety dilemma: Years of massive loads rolling over a rail will exacerbate defects in the steel, such as cracks or fractures. Investigators ultimately list the defect as the cause of a derailment, but it might never have been a problem if the rail had not been worn down.

“Rail defects are internal and rail wear is external, and when external meets internal, that’s when problems may arise,” said John Zuspan of Track Guy Consultants, a Pennsylvania firm that offers track inspections, safety training and other services for railroads.

Two accident causes in particular have the strongest correlation with worn-out rails: “detail fractures” that result from fatigued metal, and “vertical splits” in the head of the rail, where it makes contact with a train’s wheels, according to the FRA.

Those problems caused a combined 1,200 derailments with $300 million in damages, three deaths and 29 people injured in the U.S. between 2000 and the present, according to accident records reviewed by the AP.

Among them was the July 2012 derailment of a Norfolk Southern Railway train hauling ethanol and other products through Columbus, Ohio. Seventeen cars derailed, including three hauling highly flammable ethanol that exploded into flames, triggering an evacuation of surrounding neighborhoods.

A month later, another accident occurred involving a CSX Transportation train hauling coal over a bridge along Main Street in Ellicott City, Maryland, outside Baltimore. Twenty-one cars derailed when the company’s worn-down rail split beneath the weight of the coal cars. The two college students sitting on the bridge died, crushed by thousands of pounds of spilled coal.

The victims’ families reached a settlement with CSX last year for undisclosed terms. Goldman, the families’ attorney, said he pressed federal officials for a forum that would allow his clients to testify about the issue, but “nothing really happened.”

A month after the CSX derailment, federal regulators asked the Rail Safety Advisory Committee — a panel created by the Railroad Administration to include the industry and others in fashioning safety rules — to craft new standards to reduce the risks of worn-down rail. The committee set up a 116-person working group to tackle the problem, made up of industry representatives, government officials, consultants, researchers and railroad worker unions.

The group included 55 representatives from the major freight railroads and their industry organization, the Association of American Railroads. The FRA had 14 seats at the table and their counterparts from Transport Canada had five.

Following several meetings in 2012 and 2013, the group — which required consensus before recommending action — agreed on voluntary guidance for companies to manage rail wear, but no new regulations.

“There was certainly a lot of pushback and a lot of political pressure put on FRA not to adopt regulations for rail wear,” said Richard Inclima, director of safety for the union that represents track inspectors and a member of the working group. “Rail wear limits were on the table. The industry raised a lot of arguments against rail wear limits.”

“The industry doesn’t want to be regulated,” he added. “That’s no secret.”

The railroads’ opposition was confirmed by others involved with the group’s work including from the National Transportation Safety Board, the FRA and Transport Canada.

Association of American Railroads spokesman Ed Greenberg said the railroads were “unaware of any science-based data supporting rail wear limits.”

NTSB investigator Richard Hipskind, who took part in the Ellicott City and Columbus accident investigations and later served on the rail wear working group, said more research would be needed to establish universal standards.

Railroads have their own internal standards for rail wear, and have replaced more than 30,000 miles of rail since 2010, according to reports submitted by the major railroads to the U.S Surface Transportation Board, a semiautonomous agency under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Standards vary among railroads and are complicated by differences in how much weight a given line bears, whether it’s in a wet or dry climate, and if the line goes through mountains or involves lots of turns. Those variables can make the difference between well-worn rail that’s still safe and routes that poses a heightened safety hazard, according to industry experts and safety officials.

Greenberg said the industry takes an aggressive approach to identifying and removing defective or worn sections of rail.

“Each railroad has its distinct operating environment and operating conditions that would be factored into this,” Greenberg said. He added that the industry was now interested in “renewed dialogue” with the FRA on the topic.

The AP requested details on rail wear standards from each of the seven major freight railroads — BNSF Railway, Union Pacific, Canadian Pacific, CSX, Canadian National, Norfolk Southern and Kansas City Southern. They either refused the request or referred questions to the railroad association, which also declined to release the standards.

Public attention to train derailments increased sharply after July 2013, when an out-of-control oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. One of the most significant changes to emerge from that and other accidents involving crude and ethanol was a mandate for companies to phase out or upgrade tens of thousands of tank cars that are prone to rupture.

Those are important changes, said James Horbay, a rail safety engineer with Transport Canada. But what causes trains to come off the tracks in the first place needs to be resolved, he said.

“If you crash an airplane, are you going to say, ‘Let’s build an airplane that’s not going to fall apart when it hits the ground?'” he asked. “Whether rail wear is something that should be looked at is a good question to ask. You’re going right to the cause now.”


Matthew Brown reported from Billings, Montana.  Michael Kunzelman reported from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 
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First National Conference on Oil Train Threats – excellent report by Justin Mikulka

Repost from DeSmogBlog
[Editor:  Many thanks to Justin Mikulka for this excellent report on “Oil Train Response 2015,” nicely summarizing the important issues as well as the event.   Great photo below – click on it to enlarge so you can play Where’s Waldo.  🙂  For a local media report and some good links, see also my earlier posting.  – RS]

“We Need Not Be Polite” Hears First National Conference On Oil Train Threats

By Justin Mikulka • Wednesday, November 25, 2015 – 03:58
oil train conference
Oil Train Response 2015, 1st national conference on oil train threats, 11/14-15/15, Pittsburgh

On November 12th, I boarded a train headed to Pittsburgh, PA to attend the first national independent gathering focused on the topic of oil trains. The trip would take me through Philadelphia where an Amtrak train crashed in May resulting in eight fatalities and over 200 injuries.

There is general consensus that the accident would have been avoided if positive train control technology had been in place. In 2008, Congress mandated that positive train control be installed by the end of 2015. However, the railroads failed to do this and were recently given a three to five year extension by Congress after the rail companies threatened to shut down rail service if the mandate were enforced.

It is a reminder of the power of the rail lobbyists. Another example of this power is currently playing out in Congress. Earlier this year, the Senate voted to raise the amount of money that could go to victims of accidents such as the one in May. However, rail lobbyists and members of Congress are working to strip this change out of pending legislation.

Having covered the topic of oil trains for the past two years, none of this is surprising. The rail and oil lobbyists have been very effective at weakening new oil-by-rail regulations and achieving huge delays for any actual implementation of these changes.

In 2013, an oil train full of Bakken crude oil derailed in Lac-Megantic resulting in a fire that killed 47 people. The existing regulations will allow trains like the one in Lac-Megantic to roll on the rails until 2023.

These known risks and lack of regulations have created new activists across the continent and the Oil Train Response 2015 conference was the first time they have all come together in one place to discuss the issue and organize together. The event was sponsored and organized by The Heinz FoundationFracTracker and ForestEthics.

The first day of the conference was designed to inform the attendees about various aspects of oil-by-rail transportation and included presentations from first responders, politicians, Riverkeepers, legal experts and railroad safety consultant Fred Millar.

What You Are Up Against

Ben Stuckart is president of the Spokane city council, a city currently seeing 15 oil trains a week and facing the potential of as many as 137 a week by 2020 by some estimates. During his presentation, Stuckart described a trip he took to Washington, D.C. to meet with Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to express his concerns about the oil trains.

“We sit down and we’re talking to him and he’s like ‘well here is what you are up against.’ He goes, ‘My first day in office.  BNSF and Union Pacific just showed up and walked into our office.’ And he asked up front what’s going on, I don’t have an appointment. ‘Oh there is an open door policy.’

The railroads have an open door policy. Do you know how long it took for me to get an appointment with transportation secretary Foxx?”

This isn’t the only time Secretary Foxx learned what we “are up against.”

Earlier this year, Reuters reported that when the White House was finalizing the new regulations, Secretary Foxx requested that the regulations address the volatility of Bakken crude oil. His request was denied.

Stuckart’s recounting of Foxx’s candid explanation of the reality of regulation in Washington, D.C. is an excellent example of the power of the industry, and provides insight into why these trains continue to run despite the known risks.

We Need Not Be Polite

Much of the morning session of the first day of the conference was devoted to emergency response, featuring three different presentations on the topic. A bit later, rail safety consultant Fred Millar took to the podium and wasted no time in getting everyone’s attention. With the earlier emergency response presenters flanking him on either side of the podium, Millar did not pull any punches.

“We need not be polite with the railroads and first responders,” Millar said. And then he proceeded to point out what a farce the idea of emergency response planning is regarding Bakken oil trains.

“It’s a lie,” Millar said as he showed a slide of emergency responders operating fire hoses standing very near a black rail tank car that was on fire. Millar noted that these are public relations efforts meant to calm the public, but the reality of a Bakken oil train accident is that everyone within a half mile is evacuated and the train is allowed to burn itself out because it is too dangerous for first responders to approach. Often the fires last for days.

Millar’s presentation was enthusiastically received by the conference audience. As he delivered one of his many hard-hitting lines to applause, an audience member could be heard saying, “He’s like a preacher up there!” However, as repeatedly noted in his presentation, his opinion is that very little is being done to address the risks of oil-by-rail transportation.

They Are Our Children

Things got a bit heated in the question and answer session following Millar’s presentation. One point of contention was that the first responders maintained that they need to keep information about oil trains secret so as to not help out “the bad guys” — an idea not well received by the many people in the audience living near oil train tracks.

Raymond DeMichiei, Pittsburgh’s Deputy Coordinator of Emergency Management, sparked the biggest outcry when he stated that he didn’t see why “people need to know how many daycare centers are within the blast zone.” Among the responses was a woman yelling, “They are our children!”

As the session came to a close, a frustrated DeMichiei said, “Get ’em off the rails. I’ll be a happy guy.”  It was one point that everyone in the room could agree on.

FRA Administrator Grateful For Luck

A week before the conference, an ethanol train derailed in Wisconsin and spilled ethanol into the Mississippi River. The next day, an oil train derailed and spilled oil in a residential neighborhood in Wisconsin. On the first day of the conference, news broke that an oil train derailed near Philadelphia, although there was no spill.

Sarah Feinberg, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, commented on the accidents in Wisconsin saying, “We feel we got really lucky.” When I pointed out on Twitter that luck is currently a big part of the oil train safety plan, she responded.

While it is true that regulators are taking many steps to improve safety, it is also true that the oil and rail industries are working hard against any real improvements to safety. The dangerous oil is not being stabilized. The unsafe tank cars will be on the rails for at least eight more years. Modernized braking systems are years away and the industry is fighting that as well. And trains continue to run through many large cities.

On my train ride home from the conference, I saw many of the signature black tank cars on the rails. Some were carrying liquid petroleum gas, some ethanol and at least one was a unit train of oil cars (although likely empty as it was traveling West). The potential of an accident involving a commuter train and an oil train didn’t seem far fetched.

View from Amtrak train, photo by Justin Mikulka.

A National Movement Begins

The people gathered in Pittsburgh don’t want to rely on luck to protect their communities. They are committed to fighting for real rail safety, and they were clearly energized by this event. As Ben Stuckart said, “This is so awesome. I haven’t seen this big of a group about this very specific issue since I’ve been working on it the last four years.”

And that is good news for the 25 million people currently living within bomb train blast zones. Because if there is one lesson learned from the long delay over the implementation of positive train control, it is that this battle is likely to be a long and difficult effort.

Blog image credit: Paul Anderson
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Railroad lobbyists winning again, in FRA rulemaking

From an email from Dr. Fred Millar
[Editor:  Millar refers here to an excellent series of articles in the Washington Post, “Deadline for train safety technology undercut by industry lobbying“, “Rail-safety deadline extension hitched to must-pass bill on transit funding” and “Senate passes transportation funding stopgap bill and rail-safety extension“.  Dr. Fred Millar is a policy analyst, researcher, educator, and consultant with more than three decades of experience assessing the risks associated with transporting hazardous materials.  – RS]

Railroad lobbyists winning again, in FRA rulemaking

By Fred Millar, October 28, 2015

This week’s excellent Washington Post reports by reporters Halsey and Laris outlined US railroad lobbyists’ ability to secure a three-year delay in implementing the key railroad safety equipment demanded on the original 2015 deadline by Congress in the Rail Safety Act of 2008.  There is a parallel and highly related story, so far unwritten, on how the railroads and allied interests relentlessly gain even more decisive and long-lasting ways to advantage profits over safety.

Even when Congress roused itself to demand more safety as in the 2008 RSIA, the seemingly permanent Reaganite legacy of “starving the beast” of government regulatory agencies grinds on to render the regulations pitifully weak.  Now the timid and under-staffed Federal Railroad Administration is quietly piddling away the once-in-a-generation opportunity from the 2008 law to impose a significant modern safety improvement regime [already seen in many industries] on the mighty railroads.

The public and Congressional alarm at several high-profile fatal rail disasters that led to the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act prompted Congress to include a strong mandate on the Federal Railroad Administration to impose a 20th Century type of Risk Reduction Program regime on the railroads.

This surprising loss by railroad lobbyists in Congress – although they secured some weakening amendments – led to strenuous railroad efforts to prevent the FRA from crafting any strong regulations.  The out-gunned FRA effectively suffered a regulatory failure of nerve, and buried the rulemaking process out of sight for four years, gaining only a weak-tea and partial consensus from railroads and rail labor in FRA’s own ad hoc Working Group of industry insiders.  A couple of ill-attended public hearings drew no public attention.

The resulting proposed rule in 2015 had two major safety-weakening features: first, it gave the railroads a new secrecy pot to hide railroads’ own safety risk information from discovery in court proceedings on railroad negligence.  Trial lawyers, citizens and some officials alarmed about the appalling secrecy already granted to railroads, for example in their decisions to route ultra-hazardous crude oil trains through major cities, filed comments opposing this new secrecy grant.

More importantly, FRA proposed to impose on the railroads only “a streamlined version” of a modern Risk Reduction Program regime.  The comprehensive and robust one mandated by Congress would have required significant new efforts by FRA to approve and oversee railroads’ Risk Reduction Programs, and to ensure compliance.  FRA staffers no doubt felt they were not up to that task, so punted the responsibilities —  to each covered railroad to create its own safety regimes and to decide how to measure their own effectiveness, with no federal guidance.

As FRA then-Administrator Joseph Szabo declared shortly after the Lac-Mḗgantic Quebec crude oil train disaster killed 47 in July 2013,  “The movement of this product is a game changer,” [referring to] the sharp rise in trainloads of volatile crude oil from North Dakota and other places. “We have to rethink everything we’ve done and known in the past about safety.” 

Undermining the most significant Congressional rail safety mandates we may ever see is hardly the new beginning we need.

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