Category Archives: Automated Condition Monitoring Technologies

Deadline for train safety technology undercut by industry lobbying

Repost from the Washington Post

Deadline for train safety technology undercut by industry lobbying

By Ashley Halsey III and Michael Laris October 25 at 10:13 PM

Until a train barreled off the tracks at 9:26 p.m. on May 12, it had been business as usual on Capitol Hill. Among the bills quietly making their way toward a final vote was one that would postpone by several years a multibillion- dollar safety-enhancement deadline facing the railroad industry.

A victory for the railroads, which maintain one of the most powerful lobbying efforts in Washington, seemed all but certain and likely to be little noticed outside of the industry.

But at that moment, an Amtrak train hurtling toward New York City derailed in Philadelphia, turning into a tangle of crushed metal that killed eight passengers and injured 200 more.

Everyone — including the railroad and federal investigators — agreed that the catastrophe could have been prevented by a single innovation called Positive Train Control (PTC). It’s an automatic braking system that federal regulators call “the single-most important rail safety development in more than a century.”

Now, after a period of reflection and several inquiries, Congress once more is on the brink of postponing the deadline for use of PTC. The proposed delay — until at least 2018 — comes in a new regulatory era for the railroads. Trains filled with volatile natural gas or oil have derailed seven times so far this year, and there is fear that one could cause catastrophic explosions as it passes through a city.

A mighty lobby

What has taken place since May provides insight into the influence that effective lobbyists wield in Washington and how ready access to members of Congress has helped one industry fend off a costly safety mandate.

Seven years ago, Congress ordered railroads to have PTC installed by the end of 2015. It was an uncomfortable deadline for the industry, one it argued should be postponed. PTC technology was too complex, the railroads said, and the $14.7 billion cost to equip freight and commuter lines was prohibitive. Federal economists put the cost-benefit ratio at about 20 to 1.

With their lobbyists in overdrive in 2008, the railroads might have persuaded Congress to delay the mandate. But in the middle of that debate, a head-on train collision in California killed 25 people and injured 102 others. The National Transportation Safety Board said PTC could have prevented the accident, and that moved lawmakers to settle on the Dec. 31, 2015, deadline.

The NTSB says it has investigated 145 rail accidents since 1969 that PTC could have prevented, with a toll of 288 people killed and 6,574 people injured.

In the years since Congress moved to finalize the deadline in 2008, the railroad industry has spent $316 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), to maintain one of the most savvy lobbying teams in Washington. It also contributed more than $24 million during the same period to the reelection efforts of members of Congress, targeting in particular the chairmen and members of key committees that govern its business.

In 2011, the chairman of the House subcommittee on railroads spoke out at a hearing, denouncing the PTC mandate as “an example of regulatory overreach.” He said PTC would have “a very, very small cost-benefit ratio.”

Since then, that chairman, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), has risen to lead the full House Transportation Committee. Late last month, he introduced a bipartisan bill to extend the PTC deadline to at least 2018, and beyond if the “railroads demonstrate they are facing continued difficulties.”

“Railroads must implement this important but complicated safety technology in a responsible manner, and we need to give them the necessary time to do so,” Shuster said in a statement announcing the bill.

Since taking office in 2001, Shuster has received campaign contributions of $446,079 from the railroad industry, according to the CRP, with $141,484 of it coming in the 2013-2014 election cycle.

Money flows readily to the chairs of powerful committees, but other members of the House Transportation Committee also have benefited from railroad contributions. In the 2013-2014 election cycle, committee members received more than $1.25 million in direct contributions to their campaigns. As of the end of September, the railroads had pitched another $721,742 at the House committee members.

The Senate also has benefited from the railroad industry’s largesse, according to the CRP, with 77 senators receiving nearly $1.5 million in campaign contributions in 2013-2014.

Outside the Beltway, massive contributions may sound like the cost to buy a vote in Congress. But in this era of mega-money politics, campaign contributions win something almost as valuable for railroad lobbyists: face time with a member of the House or Senate.

“They call and they get a member meeting right away,” said a senior Senate staff member familiar with the process. “They have a lot of access.”

And that access brings into play what are described as some of the best lobbyists on Capitol Hill, including several dozen who once were staff members or lawmakers in Congress.

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee and the recipient of more than $70,000 in railroad campaign money since 2013, says it’s the footwork of the lobbyists, not the campaign contributions, that wins the day.

“In these days, when you have one Wall Street billionaire spend a million bucks [on a campaign], getting a few thousand dollars from a railroad?” he said with a shrug. “The railroads invest a lot of time on the Hill, and they present a pretty good story for the most part.”

Oil boom raises the stakes

Rail safety has never been a more pressing issue than it is today. So far, the people who have died in U.S. accidents that PTC could have prevented have generally been crew members or passengers. That could change in dramatic, catastrophic fashion.

The number of rail tank cars carrying flammable material in the United States has grown from 9,500 seven years ago to 493,126 last year, thanks to the boom in domestic oil produced in the Bakken oil fields.

Those trains rumble from the oil fields in Montana, North Dakota and Saskatchewan, Canada, to refineries on the East, West and Gulf coasts.

This year, seven trains have derailed, either leaking their contents or exploding. All of the U.S. explosions have come in remote rural areas where the erupting fireballs did little damage.

Canada was not so lucky.

In July 2013, a runaway freight train carrying 74 tank cars full of Bakken oil derailed in the town of Lac-Mégantic, setting off an inferno that destroyed 30 downtown buildings and killed 47 people.

Coastal states in the United States and the city of Chicago, the most important railroad hub in the nation, have come up with scenarios that depict the potential damage and death tolls should a train explode in different sections of their urban areas. Chicago, fearing that the plan’s release could cause panic, has declined to make it public.

Sarah Feinberg, acting head of the Federal Railroad Administration, says that worries of a train exploding in the middle of a city have caused her sleepless nights.

“If PTC is not fully implemented by Jan. 1, 2016, we can and should expect there to be accidents in the months and years to follow that PTC could have prevented,” she told the House subcommittee on railroads in June.

Bob Gildersleeve Sr., whose son Bob, a Maryland father of two, was killed in the May crash, said rail companies seem to be evading the mandate with an attitude of: “What are you going to do about it?”

“Is a deadline a deadline?” Gildersleeve asked. “We’re talking about fixing things that will eventually save lives, and you guys haven’t done it. Why?”

Many railroads far behind

The railroads’ pitch for an extension — both loudly in the media and quietly to Congress — has been straightforward. Unless the deadline is postponed:

“Transportation of all goods over freight rail grinds to a halt; the U.S. economy loses $30 billion; household incomes drop by $17 billion; 700,000 Americans lose their jobs; millions of commuters are stranded.”

That was the message Oct. 19 when officials from three commuter rail lines and Association of American Railroads President Ed Hamberger held a conference call with reporters to add their voices to a chorus calling for an extension of the PTC deadline.

“If the congressionally mandated deadline of Dec. 31 is not extended, there will be a transportation crisis in the country with severe economic consequences,” said Michael Melaniphy, president of the American Public Transportation Association.

The call had an unintended subtext; all three of the commuter rail lines represented — Virginia Railway Express, Chicago’s Metra system and California’s San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission — said their installation of PTC would be substantially complete by the end of 2015. Amtrak also promises to have PTC operating in the Northeast Corridor rails that it owns by the current deadline.

But most passenger trains operate on track that’s owned by the freight railroads, and the freight rail lines are far from ready to meet the deadline. The freight companies say that without an extension, all traffic on their lines must halt to comply with the law.

The railroads say they’ve already spent $5.7 billion on PTC installation and are committed to finishing the job. None will meet the Dec. 31 deadline.

“It doesn’t matter how fast the bear is that’s chasing you, if you’re running as fast as you can, you can’t run any faster,” said Frank Lonegro, vice president of the freight rail carrier CSX, which operates more than 21,000 miles of rail in 23 eastern states, Washington and two Canadian provinces.

Some of the big railroads have made progress, while others lag far behind.

One of the largest, the BNSF Railway, has made substantial progress. At the other end of the spectrum, Union Pacific hasn’t fully equipped any of its 6,532 locomotives, according to a Federal Railroad Administration report released in August.

“Union Pacific is pretending [the deadline] is not happening,” said one federal official who reviewed the report.

Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt says that “integrating these technologies into an interoperable system is very difficult,” much like merging medical records into a computerized system, and that the company already has made a $1.7 billion investment, including work on the bulk of its locomotives.

Lonegro’s colleague, CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle, said railroad lobbyists have been telling Congress for years that a 2015 deadline wasn’t realistic.

“In the early conversations, before the law was passed, the industry was identifying 2018 as a reasonable deadline that we thought we could achieve,” he said.

A federal official familiar with those 2008 negotiations offered a different perspective.

“The railroads were in the room, and [Association of American Railroads] and those guys were the ones who said 2015 was doable. They did not embrace the deadline, but they said it was a fair bill,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of involvement in the current negotiations.

“It certainly wasn’t, ‘Oh, we sprung it on the railroads at the last minute,’ as they would like some to believe,” said a staff member who was in the room while the deal was being struck.

When the final regulations were put in place nearly six years ago, federal officials tallied up the expected benefits of having the automatic braking system in place. The cost-benefit analysis put a price tag on crumpled locomotives, train delays, track damage, evacuation costs, the cleanup of hazardous spills and other consequences of the crashes that could be prevented.

Government economists also sought to calculate the human costs in injuries and deaths, using a figure of $6 million for each life that was expected to be saved. Over 20 years, there would be $269 million in savings, they figured, or the equivalent of 45 lives spared. There would be another $200 million in prevented injury costs.

In all, they projected $674 million in safety benefits from the PTC system. It would cost $13.2 billion over 20 years, including maintenance costs, to net those benefits, the economists calculated.

That came out to a cost-benefit ratio of about 20 to 1, a disconnect seized on by railroad executives, lobbyists and lawmakers sympathetic to their needs, such as Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.).

“Now, everybody has tremendous sympathy for those families that lost loved ones in the Amtrak accident, but my goodness, now we’re going to be spending billions to make something that already is one of the safest things in the entire world [safer]?” Duncan, who has received $303,250 in railroad campaign support during a 27-year career in the House, said at a June hearing. “And I’m thinking that we would be better off to spend those billions in many, many other ways — cancer research, and everything else.”

But federal rail officials and some outside experts argue that the technology needed to prevent crashes ultimately can transform the future of railroading. More frequent trains, more efficiently deployed across the country, could move more goods while cutting down on expensive fuel costs, dramatically increasing potential benefits.

Some industry executives have embraced this future, while others have pushed back. In a conference call with Wall Street analysts just 19 days before the Amtrak derailment, Union Pacific’s president and chief executive, Lance M. Fritz, predicted Congress would extend the deadline, adding that his company’s lobbyists were “giving feedback and input into our thoughts to help navigate that process.”

Dan Keating contributed to this report.

Academic: Technology can make Crude By Rail safer

Repost from The Conversation US, Boston
[Editor:  On this page I present TWO articles by Bryan W Schlake, Instructor in Rail Transportation Engineering at Penn State Altoona and a former employee of Norfolk Southern Railway.  The first, directly below, explores crude-by-rail risks and seems overly sympathetic to the rail industry.  The second more interesting and informative article, farther below (click here) explores ways to improve crude-by-rail safety.  – RS]

Despite disasters, oil-by-rail transport is getting safer

By Bryan W Schlake, April 14 2015, 5.48am EDT
This derailed oil-carrying train in Ontario in March was the third from a single freight company in a month. Reuters

For many Americans, railroad transportation rarely appears on our mental radar, and when it does, it often comes with a negative context: either we are stopped at a railroad crossing while running late for work or we come across a news article with shocking images of smoke and flames accompanied by reports of exploding tank cars.

Months go by with no thought of railroad transportation, until another derailment occurs, and we again associate trains with fire and danger.

With US crude oil production nearing all-time highs – averaging over 8.5 million barrels per day in 2014 – many are expressing fears about the potential of a crude oil spill in their community. And last week, the National Transportation Safety Board released “urgent” recommendations to promote the safety of shipping crude oil, ethanol and other flammable materials by rail.

What’s behind this rapid rise in oil-by-rail transport? How dangerous is it and can new technology make it safer? To answer these questions, we’ve prepared two articles on transporting oil by rail in the US. The first explores the economic drivers and assesses the rail industry’s record on safety; the second evaluates the technology, research and railroad operating practices that can lead to the greatest level of public good.

By better understanding the underlying issues, we can have a meaningful dialogue and take action towards the common goals of improved safety, security and economic stability.

Economics of oil by rail

Oil production in the US is booming. Last year, for the first time since 1987, annual US field production of crude oil topped three billion barrels, a 170% increase since 2008.

Technological advances such as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and horizontal drilling allowed for increased production, notably in the Bakken formation in North Dakota. But rail has been integral to the domestic oil surge. It was the availability of low-priced, flexible transportation that allowed crude oil to be shipped to US coastal refineries, creating the market for Bakken oil.

As pipelines quickly reached capacity, oil shippers turned to the railroads, which provided multiple incentives, including: flexibility in shipping options and contract timelines, shorter transit times to the refineries (five to seven days by rail compared with 40 days by pipeline), and the ability to choose which refineries to use. While pipelines allow for higher volumes to be transported, the higher speed afforded by rail results in reduced transit time for long distances.

Association of American Railroads, Author provided | Click to enlarge

As a result, Bakken oil production increased from 81,000 barrels per day in 2003 to more than one million barrels by mid-2014, with more than three-quarters of those barrels moving daily out of North Dakota by rail. While carloads of crude oil increased dramatically, on the whole it still comprises a relatively small portion of total railroad shipments – only about 1.6% of all carloads for US Class I railroads.

Because of increased domestic production and increased imports from Canada, 66% of US oil demand is now sourced from North America, a shift that’s lowered imports and will create billions of dollars in economic activity over the next several decades.

Assessing the risk

While there exists no universally accepted definition of risk, it is widely accepted that the risk associated with transportation of hazardous materials must factor in both the probability of a release of the hazardous material as well as the magnitude of the consequences of that release.

Statistically, the probability of an oil train derailment is very low and lower than other forms of transportation (see figure, below). But the potential undesirable consequences are relatively high, including damage to human life, property and the environment.

A worst-case scenario occurred in the Lac-Mégantic accident of 2013 in Canada, which resulted in 47 fatalities, another 2,000 people evacuated from their homes, almost 1.6 million gallons of crude oil released and millions of dollars in property damage.

Author provided | Click to enlarge

Since 2013, three other notable oil train derailments have occurred in Canada, including recent derailments in Ontario, and seven in the US, including the recent derailments in West Virginia in February and Illinois in March. Using data available from the FRA Office of Safety Analysis, here is a summary of statistics for US crude oil train derailments from 2013 to 2014:

  • eight derailments were reported involving a crude oil release
  • two of these derailments resulted in a release exceeding 450,000 gallons
  • two of these derailments resulted in a release between 15,000 and 30,000 gallons
  • the remaining four derailments resulted in a release of 5,000 gallons or less
  • injuries were reported in only two derailments, resulting in four total injuries
  • no fatalities were reported in any derailment
  • people were evacuated in three of these derailments, with the number of people affected ranging from 16 to about 1,000 people
  • track and equipment damage exceeded $1 million for all derailments, with only one derailment resulting in more than $5 million in damages (damage to private property or depreciation of property values not included).

In terms of hazardous materials risk, the consequence to human life was very low in these US incidents, with zero fatalities and only four reported injuries.

Bigger spills

Environmental and economic impacts, however, were substantial. Recent reports have noted that the amount of oil spilled in 2013 alone from train derailments, at more than 1.1 million gallons, was greater than the total amount of oil spilled from 1975 to 2012. As demand for crude oil shipments has increased, railroads have shifted to using “unit trains” in which nearly every car carries oil instead of the variety of railcar types found on a manifest train. For unit oil trains, the only cars that are not tank cars are the “buffer cars”, typically located in the front and rear of the train to provide an added level of safety for the train crew in the event of an accident.

The use of unit oil trains has resulted in larger amounts of oil being spilled in a single derailment. For example, the majority of oil released in 2013 resulted from only two derailments, occurring in Aliceville, Alabama, in November of 2013 and Casselton, North Dakota, in December of 2013. The recent accident in West Virginia on February 16 of this year likely resulted in a release of similar magnitude to the 2013 spills. The accident in Galena, Illinois on March 5th of this year resulted in a spill of over 200,000 gallons of crude oil released from seven tank cars.

Author provided

The other side of the coin for risk assessment is the probability of release, which is extremely low when compared with other transportation modes. In 2013, which was the worst year to-date for oil train derailments, about 28,000 barrels of oil were released from railroad tank cars out of the approximately 300 million barrels of oil delivered by rail.

In other words, less than one hundredth of 1% of the volume of oil transported by rail in 2013 in the US was released into the environment. According to an analysis of US oil spillage, the amount of oil spilled by railroads per billion ton-mile transported declined by approximately 85% throughout the 1990s and 2000s. By comparison, pipelines experienced closer to a 40% decline in oil spilled per billion ton-miles over the same period. While this report does not include the recent increase in unit oil trains, it does provide a valuable comparison across transportation modes.

Due to changes in safety culture and numerous technological advances, railroads have continued to improve safety over the last decade, with accident rates reaching all-time lows in 2014 at only 2.24 train accidents per million train miles. The industry has been clear about its goal to continue to use new technologies and improved operating practices to drive accident rates even lower, asserting that “No accident, big or small, is acceptable.”

In our next piece [below], we’ll look at some technologies that can improve safety.


Repost from The Conversation US, Boston

Shipping oil by rail is booming. Technology can make it safer

By Bryan W Schlake, April 15 2015, 6.18am EDT
The National Transportation Safety Board made an ‘urgent’ recommendation to improve the safety of oil-carrying rail cars. Rick Wilking/Reuters

The Energy Information Administration recently released a map that reflects a massive change to our economy few people appreciate.

The graphic, shown below, shows the latest data on crude oil-by-rail movements around the country and the surge in oil shipments from North Dakota to the different corners of the country. Last year, trains transported more than one million barrels of oil per day in 2014 – a huge jump from 55,000 barrels per day in 2010.

Energy Information Administration | Click to enlarge

This increase in oil-by-rail transportation has come with a number of high-profile derailments, including an accident in Illinois just last month, which have caused substantial economic and environmental damage. Can technology improve safety? Yes. In much the way automobiles are becoming increasingly high-tech, various stakeholders in rail transportation are exploring various technologies to improve safety.

Building a better rail car (and maintaining it)

Railroads have already taken some steps to improve equipment with better braking systems and upgrades to the track infrastructure. New practices can improve safety as well, including better track inspections, speed restrictions for oil trains and choosing routes to reduce exposure to population centers. Railroads have also increased the use of freight car defect detectors installed alongside the the tracks that automatically identify mechanical defects on the railcars based on force, temperature, sound, or visual measurements.

The industry standard needs to be improved, say safety officials, but it’s unclear who will pay for upgrades. Roy Luck, CC BY | Click to enlarge

Many of these technologies are already being implemented by the railroads both to improve safety and to increase economic benefits. In addition to minimizing the safety risk associated with derailments, improved track and vehicle inspection practices help to reduce the potential for delays, which can cost railroads hundreds of dollars per hour.

An economic analysis from 2011 estimated that the annual train delay costs due to railcar defects (resulting in trains stopping unexpectedly enroute) was over US$15 million for all US Class I railroads. For comparison, each year the four largest US Class I railroads spend an average of $35 million on track and equipment damages due to main-line derailments. Thus, the economic drivers behind the reduction of derailments and train delays are quite substantial.

Federal agencies and lawmakers are also working to ensure that federal safety requirements and public policy address the new transportation landscape resulting from the domestic oil boom and increased imports from Canada. The federal government is currently considering new safety standards for improved tank cars specifically designed for the transportation of crude oil.

However, movement towards such legislation has presented considerable challenges due to the fact that the vast majority of tank cars are owned by private companies other than the railroads that transport them.

As a result, questions arise regarding who should bear the economic burden of replacing and/or retrofitting the crude oil tank car fleet. Due to safety and economic incentives mentioned above, some railroads have already begun to purchase their own improved tank cars, but this has not become a universal trend across the industry.

Role of research

Researchers, too, are exploring how technology can improve safety in a variety of ways, including:

Improved Tank Car Design: The Association of American Railroads (AAR) is working to promote tougher federal standards for tank cars carrying crude oil and other hazardous liquids. Extensive research is ongoing both within the Federal Railroad Administration and at various universities to assess tank car safety and develop an optimized tank car design: Cooperative Research in Tank Car Safety Design.

Acoustic bearing detectors, the white-colored machines on either side of the tracks, take sound measurements which allow railroads to predict when railcar roller bearings are beginning to wear out. Bryan Schlake, Author provided | Click to enlarge

Track and Infrastructure Inspection: Railroad track failures have been found to be a leading derailment cause in the US. As a result, railroads have begun to perform more track inspections, including the use of advanced track geometry vehicles – which use laser systems to measure the profile of the rail – on routes carrying crude oil trains. Ultrasonic rail inspection methods as well as ground-penetrating radar systems are also being developed to improve the ability of railroads to detect track defects.

Risk Assessment: Railroad transportation risk research associated with hazardous materials is ongoing. Risk assessment has included rail defect inspection, evaluating routing and train speed, track quality and an integrated framework to reduce risk. This framework addresses operating practices, train routing, infrastructure, and car design to identify the financial and safety risk associated with hazardous materials transport by rail.

Automated Condition Monitoring Technologies: Various wayside detector systems have been developed and installed across the country at locations adjacent to track to assess the condition of locomotive and freight car components enroute. These systems incorporate various technologies to identify critical defects resulting in both safety and economic benefits. Some key technologies include:

  • infrared temperature sensors used to measure overheated wheels/bearings
  • accoustic bearing detectors to identify worn roller bearings in railcars
    High-tech rail: a closer look at an acoustic bearing detector. Bryan Schlake, Author provided | Click to enlarge
  • laser systems to measure wheel profiles and identify worn wheels
  • machine vision systems to detect low air-hoses, structural defects and broken or missing railcar safety appliances
  • load impact sensors to identify damaged wheels that are out-of-round or exhibit flat spots.

Advanced Braking Systems: Both technology and operating practices can play a role in improving braking for oil trains. Some have suggested the use of Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brakes. ECP brakes allow for faster application of the brakes on all cars in a train using an electric signal, instead of an air signal, to initiate a brake application.

ECP brakes have been used on a limited basis for coal trains, but the costs have not been proven to justify the safety and economic benefits. A better option may be the use of either:

  1. distributed power, where locomotives are dispersed throughout the train (i.e. front, rear and even in the center) and/or
  2. two-way end-of-train devices (EOTD) that allow brake signals to be initiated from the rear of the train.

Both of these operating practices result in faster braking and reduce “run-in”, where the cars in the front of the train begin braking before those on the rear, causing the rear cars to “run-into” the cars in front of them, creating higher in-train forces. After these measures were proposed by the US Department of Transportation in July of 2014, US Class I railroads agreed to implement enhanced braking in the form of distributed power or two-way EOTDs on all oil trains.

A derailment in Lynchburg, Virginia in 2014 emptied at least one car’s load of crude into the James River Waterkeeper Alliance Inc., CC BY-NC-ND | Click to enlarge

Positive Train Control (PTC): This technology will automatically slow or stop a train to prevent a collision or derailment due to human error, such as speeding or missing a signal. After a federal mandate in 2008, railroads have begun to develop and install this GPS-based safety overlay system, which will eventually cover more than 60,000 miles of track in the US.

Emergency Response: Railroads are working together with various organizations to improve community safety through emergency response training.

Reducing risk

In addition, new technologies are being developed to improve the speed and effectiveness of environmental cleanup efforts. For example, researchers at Penn State University have developed a patented technology called Petro-SAP to absorb oil from the environment after a spill. Technologies like this can be used in the future to mitigate environmental impact of train related oil spills.

While the risk associated with oil train derailments has not been eliminated, the transportation of crude oil by rail has certainly become safer through extensive research, development and implementation of new technologies.

Continued efforts by railroads, government agencies, research institutions and universities will continue to improve the safety of crude oil transportation by rail, reducing risk and potentially alleviating public fears associated with railroad transportation.