Category Archives: U.S. Department of Transportation

NY TIMES / AP: Slow Progress Seen on Faulty Rail Cars

Repost from the New York Times (AP)

Upgrades to Unsafe Tank Cars Could Take 15 Years, Board Says

By Matthew Brown, Associated Press, July 13, 2016, 2:30 A.M. E.D.T.
Oil Train Accidents
FILE–In this June 3, 2016, file frame from video provided by KGW-TV, smoke billows from a Union Pacific train that derailed near Mosier, Ore., in the scenic Columbia River Gorge. U.S. safety officials say they’ve seen slow progress in efforts to upgrade or replace tens of thousands of rupture-prone rail cars used to transport oil and ethanol, despite a string of fiery derailments. (KGW-TV via AP, file)

BILLINGS, Mont. — Accident-prone tank cars used to haul crude oil and ethanol by rail could remain in service for another 15 years under federal rules that allow companies to phase in upgrades to the aging fleet, according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.

Transportation officials and railroad representatives have touted the rules as a key piece of their efforts to stave off future disasters, following a string of fiery derailments and major spills that raised concerns about the crude-by-rail industry.

Yet without mandatory, periodic benchmarks for meeting the requirements, the decision to upgrade to safer tank car designs “is left entirely to tank car fleet owners, and may be driven by market factor influences, not safety improvements,” NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said in a letter Tuesday to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Tom Simpson with the Railway Supply Institute, which represents tank car manufacturers and owners, said the industry is committed to putting stronger cars in place. Members of the group will meet deadlines for replacing or upgrading the cars, he said, noting that demand for rail cars has eased after crude-by-rail shipments decreased over the past two years in response to lower oil prices.

“The need to modify or install new cars isn’t as urgent as when the rule was issued,” Simpson said.

In recent years, accidents involving the older cars have occurred in Oregon, Montana, North Dakota, Illinois, West Virginia and Canada.

The most notable was in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where 47 people were killed when a runaway oil train derailed in 2013. During the most recent accident last month in Oregon, 42,000 gallons of crude oil spilled, sparking a massive fire that burned for 14 hours near the small town of Mosier in the Columbia River Gorge.

Cars built before the rule was enacted do not have to be fully replaced until 2029, although most would have to come off the tracks sooner.

Just over 10,300 stronger tank cars mandated by the new rules are available for service, according to figures obtained by The Associated Press from the Association of American Railroads.

That’s equivalent to roughly 20 percent of the 51,500 tank cars used to haul crude and ethanol during the first quarter of 2016.

Transportation Department Press Secretary Clark Pettig said in response to the NTSB’s criticism that the schedule to retrofit older cars was locked in by Congress in a transportation bill approved last year. The Congressional deadline represents “the absolute last moment” to meet the new standards, Pettig said.

“We agree with NTSB that industry should work to beat those deadlines,” he said.

A Wednesday meeting was planned in Washington, D.C., where government and industry officials were set to update the safety board on progress addressing the issue.

Safety board member Robert Sumwalt told the Associated Press that federal regulators need to set milestones to hold the industry accountable.

“There’s been 28 accidents over the past 10 years. That’s almost three accidents a year,” Sumwalt said. “Unfortunately, history shows we probably will have more accidents involving flammable liquids.”

A bill from U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and other Democratic lawmakers would offer tax credits for companies that upgrade their cars during the next several years.

“Communities near train tracks, like Mosier, Oregon, must be confident that companies are using the safest tank cars possible,” Wyden said.

The railroad association said only 700 of the least resilient model of the older-style tank cars remain in service. Most of the cars in current use have at least some improvements, such as shields at either end of the car to help prevent punctures during derailments.

Transportation officials cautioned, however, that thousands of idled “legacy cars” could quickly come back online if oil prices rise and shipment volumes rebound.

Most tank cars are owned or leased by companies that ship fuel by rail, not the railroads themselves.

“Every tank car carrying crude or ethanol needs to be upgraded or replaced,” said railroad association spokesman Ed Greenberg.

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    Inspector General Cites Failure of Federal Railroad Administration on Oil Train Safety

    Repost from The Root Word, ForestEthics Blog
    [Editor:  See also the earlier Associated Press story: Railroad Regulators Fail to Pursue Criminal Prosecution of Hazardous Cargo Safety Violations.  – RS]

    News Analysis: Inspector General Cites Failure of Federal Railroad Administration on Oil Train Safety

    By Matt Krogh, March 2, 2016
    2015 Paul K. Anderson

    In a scathing critique, the US Department of Transportation Inspector General called out the Federal Railroad Administration (which is an agency within DOT) for failing to adequately evaluate or reduce the risks of a catastrophic oil train accident to the American public. The conclusion: The FRA is failing to provide adequate oversight and policing of oil trains, and FRA fails to enforce the rules or prosecute violators when they find dangerous violations.

    Oil trains are too dangerous for the rails. The Inspector General makes this point in the first sentence of the review, citing the fatal Lac Megantic oil train disaster. But we’ve heard from far too many local, county, and state officials around the country who believe the federal government is overseeing oil trains and guaranteeing public safety. It’s true that century-old railroad law puts railroads under federal control. That makes sense because a continental railroad system would grind to a halt if it was regulated by thousands of different local and state government entities. But no one should let “pre-emption” or federal-control get in the way of local permitting decisions, especially when it comes to public safety. Especially when it comes to preventing a calamity that could reduce another town to ashes.

    This Inspector General report makes it clear the FRA is failing the American people with a good cop/good cop approach when it comes to mile-long oil trains carrying millions of gallons of toxic, explosive crude through US cities and towns.

    Here’s some key quotes from the DOT IG report, reviewed in an excellent article by AP reporter Joan Lowy:

    the Agency has no overall, national understanding of the risk environment and cannot be sure that the regions consider all appropriate risk factors

    This points to a key flaw in FRA oversight: they assume that region-based inspection systems are all that are needed, and fail to look nationally, comprehensively, at the risks of moving oil by train.

    …do not take into account risk factors such as the condition of transportation infrastructure, the shippers’ compliance histories, or the proximity of transportation routes to population centers.

    This begs the question, what does the FRA look at in risk assessment? Track conditions, how good the individual railroads are at safety, and how close people are living to oil train routes seem pretty important.

    FRA issues few violations, pursues low civil penalties, and does not refer possibly criminal violations to the office of inspector general

    The FRA turns a blind eye to criminal violations, settles for low fines, and fails to bring in the Office of Inspector General when criminal investigations are warranted. We need a bad cop, folks.

    One inspector noted that the Office of Chief Counsel has effectively “numbed” a large portion of inspectors into not writing violations and stated that some inspectors have preconceived notions that violations will not get through the process.

    It’s true that the FRA does have inspectors — but the FRA’s buddy culture with the railroads means that hard-working inspectors on the ground have lost faith in the agency’s willingness and ability to regulate railroads.

    respondents just smile and cut the check

    By respondents the Inspector General means railroads. They don’t argue with miniscule fines, but then why should they? They are happy to pay small fines as a normal operating expense, and get back to moving vast quantities of explosive, toxic crude oil through America’s population centers.

    While the specific circumstances of all of these violations may not have warranted maximum penalties, FRA settled for 5.1 percent of the roughly $105.6 million dollars in penalties it could have levied…

    No, seriously, the fines are miniscule. FRA is only issuing 5% of the fines they could levy under the law. Wouldn’t it be nice if the highway patrol took the same approach to speeding tickets? It would, but then, the Wild West of our highways would be littered with the smoking wreckage of souped-up Camaros.

    By applying the same penalty to all violations of a regulation, FRA is distancing its enforcement actions from the context of the behaviors they are meant to rectify, thus weakening penalties’ deterrent effect. Furthermore, by bundling violations, FRA’s settlement process removes penalty enforcement from the context of each violation and low penalties diminish the potential deterrent effect of the penalties set in the guidelines and the regulatory maximums.

    And there you have it: it doesn’t matter the scale or the number of fines you get, you can talk your way out of it in the settlement process.

    The Inspector General audit of the Federal Railroad Administration found an agency that fails to understand and regulate the severe threat to 25 million Americans living in the blast zone. When it comes to oil trains the FRA seems to work for the railroad and oil industry, and not the American people. Local and state officials faced with permitting decisions need to recognize their responsibility to protect the public, just as the FRA now needs to do their job when it comes to deadly oil trains.

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      FRA Launches Website for States and Municipalities to Request Bridge Inspection Reports

      Repost from Transportation.gov (US Department of Transportation)

      FRA Launches Website for States and Municipalities to Request Bridge Inspection Reports

      Agency also requests resources to double bridge safety staff, create national database of bridges
      Friday, February 26, 2016

      USDOT-FRAWASHINGTON – The Federal Railroad Administration today launched a new tool on its website that allows states and municipalities to request inspection reports for rail bridges in their communities. The tool is being launched following the passage of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act and is one of the first provisions FRA has implemented. FRA also announced today that it has requested additional resources as part of the President’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget to double its bridge specialist staff and create a national bridge inventory database and website.

      “Communities across the country will now have access to information on the condition of railroad bridges in their area,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “These inspection reports will provide greater transparency between railroads and local leaders, which is an important cornerstone in our comprehensive safety efforts.”

      A state or a political subdivision of a state, such as a city, county, town or municipality, can now use FRA’s website to request information from inspection reports for local bridges via https://www.fra.dot.gov/Page/P0922. Once FRA receives the request, the railroad that owns the bridge will have 30 days to respond to the request. FRA plans to provide a copy of the report to the requester within 45 days of the original request.

      According to the FAST Act, the following information about the bridge will be included in the report: the date of the last inspection; length of bridge; location of bridge; type of bridge (superstructure); type of structure (substructure); features crossed by the bridge; railroad contact information; and a general statement on the condition of the bridge.

      “The Federal Railroad Administration has repeatedly urged railroads to be more responsive and more transparent with state and local leaders concerned about the condition of their local railroad bridges. State and local officials will now be able to get more information from railroads on the infrastructure in their communities,” FRA Administrator Sarah E. Feinberg said. “Providing inspection reports to local leaders is a great first step, but more can—and must—be done. We hope Congress will provide the resources to double our bridge safety staff and create a national database.”

      The FAST Act addressed the issue after months of Administrator Feinberg repeatedly urging railroads to be more transparent and respond to communities when they have questions and concerns about the condition of rail bridges.

      Last September, the Administrator sent a letter to all railroads saying, “When a local leader or elected official asks a railroad about the safety status of a railroad bridge, they deserve a timely and transparent response. I urge you to engage more directly with local leaders and provide timely information to assure the community that the bridges in their communities are safe and structurally sound.” While addressing, the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee in November 2015, Administrator Feinberg again told railroads that, “When FRA is asked about bridge safety, it’s frequently because, again, the public or a member of Congress become concerned and has tried to get answers from a railroad, and they have been ignored or put off.”

       

       

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        Rail agency’s new head draws kudos, despite string of crashes

        Repost from The Boston Globe

        Rail agency’s new head draws kudos, despite string of crashes

        By Ashley Halsey III, Washington Post, March 22, 2015
        Smoke and flames erupted from railroad tank cars loaded with crude oil that derailed March 5 near Galena, Ill.
        Smoke and flames erupted from railroad tank cars loaded with crude oil that derailed March 5 near Galena, Ill. Mike Burley / Telegraph Herald via Associated Press

        WASHINGTON — After a string of deadly train crashes, a pair of angry US senators stood in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal four months ago to denounce the Federal Railroad Administration as a ‘‘lawless agency, a rogue agency.’’

        They said it was too cozy with the railroads it regulates and more interested in ‘‘cutting corners’’ for them than protecting the public.

        In the past two months, photos of rail cars strewn akimbo beside tracks have rivaled mountains of snow in Boston for play in newspapers and on television.

        But the reaction by Congress to the railroad oversight agency’s performance has been extremely positive recently.

        Accolades were directed at its acting head, Sarah Feinberg, even though her two-month tenure in the job has coincided with an astonishing number of high-profile train wrecks:

        • Feb. 3: Six people were killed when a commuter train hit an SUV at a grade crossing in Valhalla, N.Y.
        • Feb. 4: Fourteen tank cars carrying ethanol jumped the tracks north of Dubuque, Iowa, and three burst into flames.
        • Feb. 16: Twenty-eight tank cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire in West Virginia.
        • Feb. 24: A commuter train derailed in Oxnard, Calif., after hitting a tractor-trailer at a grade crossing.
        • March 5: Twenty-one tank cars derailed and leaked crude oil within yards of a tributary of the Mississippi River in Illinois.
        • March 9: The engine and baggage car of an Amtrak train derailed after hitting a tractor-trailer at a grade crossing in North Carolina.

        At first glance, Feinberg seems an unlikely choice to replace Joseph Szabo, the career railroad man who resigned after five years in the job. She is 37, a former White House operative, onetime spokeswoman for Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and, most recently, chief of staff to the US Department of Transportation secretary.

        Nothing on her résumé says ‘‘railroad.’’

        ‘‘Sometimes it’s good to have an outside person,’’ said Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, who got a call from Feinberg immediately after the Feb. 3 crash in Valhalla. ‘‘She’s smart, she’s a quick study, she knows how to bring people together. I think she’s the right person for the job.’’

        ‘‘Whether she’s had a lifetime experience riding the rails or working on the rails, she knows how to get to the crux of things and move things forward,’’ said Senator Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat who arrived at the Feb. 16 crash shortly before Feinberg did. ‘‘I was very impressed.’’

        Schumer calls Feinberg ‘‘hard-nosed’’ and says she isn’t worried if she ruffles some in an industry grown accustomed to a more languid pace of change.

        After the Valhalla crash, Feinberg pulled together a team to come up with a better way to address an issue that kills hundreds of people at grade crossings each year.

        ‘‘We’re at a point where about 95 percent of grade-crossing incidents are due to driver or pedestrian error,’’ Feinberg said. ‘‘While I don’t blame the victims, this is a good example of a problem that needs some new thinking.’’

        A month later, she called on local law enforcement to show a greater presence at grade crossings and ticket drivers who try to beat the warning lights. Next, the railroad agency says it plans ‘‘to employ smarter uses of technology, increase public awareness of grade crossing safety, and improve signage.’’

        ‘‘When it comes to the rail industry, that is lightning fast, and it’s really impressive,’’ said a congressional aide who focuses on transportation.

        Grade-crossing deaths pale in comparison to the potential catastrophe that Feinberg says keeps her awake at night. ‘‘We’re transporting a highly flammable and volatile crude from the middle of the country, more than 1,000 miles on average, to refineries,’’ she said.

        All of the recent crude-oil train derailments happened miles from the nearest town. But little more than a year ago, a CSX train with six crude-oil tank cars derailed on a river bridge in the middle of Philadelphia. And an oil-fueled fireball after a derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in July 2013 left 47 people dead.

        The number of tank-car trains has expanded exponentially since the start of a production boom centered in North Dakota. Seven years ago, 9,500 tank cars of Bakken crude traveled by railroad. Last year, the number was 493,126. In 2013, an additional 290,000 cars transported ethanol.

        Mindful of the potential for disaster, the White House tasked the Office of Management and Budget and the Transportation Department with figuring out how to safely transport the oil. At DOT, that fell to Feinberg, who had just signed on as chief of staff to Secretary Anthony Foxx.

        ‘‘We found her to be very hands-on, firm but fair, and ready to work with all stakeholders in making fact-based decisions,’’ said Ed Greenberg of the Association of American Railroads. ‘‘She is someone who has quickly recognized the challenges in moving crude oil by rail. And the freight rail industry is ready to work with her” in her new role at the Federal Railroad Administration, he said.

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