Tag Archives: U.S. Senate Commerce Committee

Safety deadline may exempt U.S. railroads from common carrier freight obligations

Repost from Reuters

Exclusive: Safety deadline may exempt U.S. railroads from freight obligations

By David Morgan, September 8, 2015
A freight locomotive rolls across an intersection in Fresno, California January 6, 2015. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
A freight locomotive rolls across an intersection in Fresno, California January 6, 2015. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

U.S. railroads may not be obligated under federal law to carry freight including crude oil and hazardous materials from Jan. 1 if they fail to meet a year-end deadline for implementing new train safety technology, according to a top federal regulator.

In a Sept. 3 letter to the Senate Commerce Committee, U.S. Surface Transportation Board Chairman Daniel Elliott says the common carrier obligation requiring freight railroads to honor reasonable requests for service from shippers “is not absolute, and railroads can suspend service for various reasons, including safety.”

The letter, reviewed by Reuters, presents the most tangible sign yet of what could lie ahead for rail carriers and their customers, if Congress fails to extend its Dec. 31 deadline for railroads to implement positive train control, or PTC.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which has been calling on railroads to adopt PTC since the late 1960s, says the technology would prevent major rail accidents such as the May 12 Amtrak derailment that killed eight people and injured more than 200 others.

The approaching deadline has prompted at least one major railroad company to look seriously at suspending service: billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s BNSF Railway Co (BRKa.N), the No. 2 freight railroad operator and the leading carrier in the $2.8 billion U.S. crude-by-rail market.

“BNSF confirmed that it will not meet the deadline and offered the possibility that neither passenger nor freight traffic would operate on BNSF lines,” Elliott said in the letter, which was addressed to the committee’s Republican chairman, Senator John Thune of South Dakota.

In a July 24 letter provided to Reuters by BNSF, railroad president and chief executive Carl Ice informed Elliott that BNSF is analyzing the possibility of a service shutdown and actively consulting with customers.

CSX Corp (CSX.N), the No. 3 U.S. freight handler, also told the board that it would not meet the PTC deadline but did not discuss possible decisions on whether to continue service, Elliott said.

A CSX spokeswoman said the company was working diligently to implement PTC but that a “seamless, safe operation is imperative to maintain the fluidity of the national rail network.”

Railroad officials in June raised the possibility of shutting down service as a way to avoid potential legal liabilities and fines for operating outside the law.

Elliott told Thune it was unclear whether railroads would be exempt from their obligation to provide freight service for cargo, including hazardous materials, under federal rules that say service cannot be denied simply because it is inconvenient or unprofitable for the carrier.

The Surface Transportation Board, a regulatory agency charged by Congress with resolving rail disputes over rates and service, had no immediate comment, nor did the Federal Railroad Administration, the main U.S. railroad regulator.

Up to now, the board has mainly handled common carrier obligation cases involving services that have complied with federal safety rules. “A carrier-initiated curtailment of service due to a failure to comply … would present a case of first impression,” Elliott wrote. “I cannot predict the outcome of such a case.”

PTC can avoid accidents by using a complex network of sensors and automated controls to slow or stop a train under dangerous conditions.

In 2008, Congress mandated that railroads implement the technology by the end of 2015. But only a small number of U.S. passenger, commuter and freight railroads will meet the deadline, according to an Obama administration report released last month. [ID: L1N11A275]. The report named BNSF as one of only three railroads that have provided regulators with a PTC implementation plan.

Railroad officials have complained about the cost and complexity of adopting PTC and have produced freight and commuter rail estimates showing full implementation could cost the industry nearly $13 billion.

A six-year transportation bill approved by the Senate last month would allow the Obama administration to extend the deadline for up to three years.

“The administration requested authority to extend the deadline for positive train control and the Senate subsequently advanced a bipartisan proposal to create accountability and set realistic deadlines,” said Frederick Hill, Republican spokesman for the Senate Commerce Committee.

“This provision in the surface transportation bill will address the concerns summarized in Chairman Elliott’s correspondence,” he added.

But the Senate measure is not expected to be taken up by the House of Representatives when lawmakers return from their summer break this week. Republican staff with the House Transportation Committee were not available for comment.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Nick Zieminski)
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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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      Setting the record straight on the oil industry studies of Bakken crude by rail

      Repost from Reuters

      Industry tests of oil train dangers need scrutiny, U.S. officials say

      By Patrick Rucker  |  WASHINGTON, June 2, 2014

      (Reuters) – Oil industry studies concluding that Bakken crude oil is safe to move by rail under existing standards may underestimate the dangers of the fuel and should not be the last word, U.S. lawmakers and industry officials said on Monday.

      In the past year, several doomed oil trains originated from North Dakota’s Bakken region, including a shipment that jumped the tracks and burst into flames in Lynchburg, Virginia, on April 30. Last July, a fiery derailment destroyed the center of the village of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people.

      Two industry-funded studies conclude Bakken fuel is rightly classed as a flammable liquid that can safely move in standard tank cars. The cargo is nothing akin to flammable gasses like propane that must move in costlier, heavier vessels, the oil industry has said.

      But the industry findings hinge on incomplete and out-of-date methods for determining vapor pressure, an important indicator of volatility, that may miss the true dangers of Bakken fuel, according to several industry officials.

      Lawmakers say they expect regulators to scrutinize the industry’s findings.

      “These studies should be taken with a grain of salt,” said Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, a state that is a major pass-through point for Bakken fuel.

      One study released May 20 by the North Dakota Petroleum Council (NDPC) collected samples with open bottles rather than a precision instrument, known as a floating piston cylinder, that is being adopted by the industry.

      Gas can escape with bottle sampling and such tests are unreliable, said the Canadian Crude Quality Technical Association, a trade group.

      “We would consider the data suspect,” the group said.

      ASTM, an international standard-setting body, last month deemed the floating piston cylinder the right tool for Bakken fuel samples. Open bottle samples can skew vapor pressure nearly 10 percent lower, according to research from Ametek, which manufactures testing equipment.

      Industry officials say that any underestimation of vapor pressure would be negligible.

      Vapor pressure results did not exceed 15 pounds per square inch (psi) in the NDPC report.

      A separate study by the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) returned readings below 17 psi.

      The threshold pressure for flammable gas is 43 psi under those same conditions.

      Rich Moskowitz, general counsel for the AFPM, the refining industry trade group, said its report “clearly found that Bakken crude oil is properly transported as a flammable liquid. That’s the bottom line.”

      Industry officials note that the U.S. Department of Transportation has not issued any of its own findings on Bakken fuel despite collecting samples since the summer.

      The issue will likely be raised on Tuesday at a panel of the Senate Commerce Committee which will feature testimony from railroad regulators, among others.

      “It is my hope that any private data collection and studies on this issue will be highly scrutinized,” said Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, who sits on the panel.

      (Reporting by Patrick Rucker; Editing by Grant McCool)
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