Tag Archives: Rail Safety Improvement Act

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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Positive Train Control – background, progress, funding

Repost from the Miami Herald

Rail safety technology improvements delayed by cost, complexity

Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau, May 14, 2015

Emergency personnel work at the scene of the deadly Amtrak train wreck Wednesday in Philadelphia. Federal investigators are trying to determine why the Amtrak train jumped the tracks in a wreck that killed eight people and injured dozens. Patrick Semansky – AP

Most of the nation’s railroads will not meet a Dec. 31 deadline for installing collision-avoidance technology that could have prevented Tuesday’s deadly Amtrak crash in Philadelphia.

Congress in 2008 required that railroads install positive train control by the end of this year, and although the rail industry has made progress on the $9 billion system, equipping 60,000 miles of track and 22,500 locomotives with the technology has proved to be complicated.

The technology has to work across not only the seven largest freight railroads but also 20 commuter railroads, Amtrak and dozens of smaller carriers. It requires 36,000 wireless devices that relay information to train crews and dispatchers from signals and track switches.

It also must work in densely populated regions where multiple rail lines intersect and are heavy with passenger and freight traffic, such as Chicago, Southern California, New York and New Jersey.

“Each of these systems has to be able to talk to each other,” said Ed Hamberger, the president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, an industry group.

Even lawmakers who months ago wanted to hold the industry to the 2015 deadline have softened their position in recognition that the system simply won’t be ready.

Hamberger told reporters Thursday that the industry needs another three years just to get the equipment installed, and two more to make sure it works. Of the 60,000 miles of track where the system is required, he said only 8,200 miles would be ready by year’s end.

A bill approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in March would give railroads until 2020 to complete the task. But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who wrote the legislation that contained the 2015 deadline, said a five-year blanket extension was not the answer.

“In my view, that is an extremely reckless policy,” she said in a statement Thursday. Feinstein has introduced a bill that would extend the deadline on a case-by-case basis.

The technology was not in place at the site of Tuesday’s derailment, on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the busiest passenger railroad in the country. The National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday that positive train control would have prevented Train 188 from approaching a 50 mph curve at more than 106 mph.

Eight people were killed and more than 200 were injured. It was Amtrak’s first fatal accident on the Northeast Corridor since a January 1987 crash that killed 16 people. In that instance, positive train control could have stopped a freight locomotive from running past a stop signal into the path of the Amtrak train.

The NTSB has recommended positive train control for decades. In January, the board included the technology on its “Most Wanted” list of safety improvements. It did not endorse giving railroads an extension beyond December.

Amtrak actually may finish its installation of the system on the entire 457-mile passenger rail corridor between Washington and Boston ahead of most railroads.

“We will complete this by the end of the year,” Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman said Thursday at a news conference in Philadelphia.

The rail industry supports the Senate bill that would give the companies a five-year deadline extension, and even some of the industry’s toughest critics in Congress are prepared to give it more time.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, freight hauler BNSF and Metrolink, a commuter railroad in Southern California, are positioned to meet the original deadline.

An August 2008 collision near Chatsworth, Calif., prompted Congress to pass the Rail Safety Improvement Act requiring positive train control. Twenty-five people were killed when a Metrolink commuter train ran past a stop signal and into the path of a Union Pacific freight. According to the NTSB accident report, the Metrolink engineer, who was among those killed, was texting just before the crash.

Another fatal crash, on New York’s Metro North commuter railroad in December 2013, renewed calls for positive train control. Four people were killed when a New York-bound train jumped the tracks in the Bronx. The train was traveling 80 mph when it hit a 30 mph curve.

Positive train control is designed to prevent a train from running a red signal or approaching a slow curve too fast. Accident investigators don’t yet know why Train 188 was going more than twice the appropriate speed when it derailed in Northeast Philadelphia, but they do know the accident was preventable.

“The Amtrak disaster shows why we must install positive train control technology as soon as possible,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said in a statement Thursday.

One thing Congress did not do when it required railroads to install the system was give them any money to do it. When asked Thursday how much the government had contributed to the freight railroads to assist with positive train control, Hamberger, of the Association of American Railroads, replied, “Zero.”

President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget includes $825 million to help commuter railroads install the technology. The president’s 2009 economic stimulus provided $64 million to Amtrak for its installation. But that wasn’t enough, the railroad said in a report justifying its 2014 budget request.

Overall, Amtrak has spent $110.7 million since 2008 to install positive train control.

“Additional funding to fully comply with PTC requirements is necessary,” Amtrak said.

Richard Harnish, the president of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a group that advocates for passenger rail improvements, said in a statement Thursday that positive train control was delayed because Congress gave railroads an unfunded mandate.

“Congress needs to invest in the safety of our transportation system,” he said.

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