Category Archives: Federal Rail Administration

Chicago Area Mayors Meet with Feds, Call For Improved Safety Measures For Oil Trains

Repost from CBS2 Chicago

Mayors Call For Improved Safety Measures For Oil Trains

August 20, 2014
Firefighters douse a blaze after a freight train loaded with oil derailed in Lac Megantic in Canada's Quebec province on July 6, 2013, sparking explosions that engulfed about 30 buildings in fire.  More than 40 people were killed as a result of the crash and fire. (Photo redit: François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)
Firefighters douse a blaze after a freight train loaded with oil derailed in Lac Megantic in Canada’s Quebec province on July 6, 2013, sparking explosions that engulfed about 30 buildings in fire. More than 40 people were killed as a result of the crash and fire. (Photo redit: François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)

CHICAGO (CBS) – Federal railroad officials got an earful Wednesday from the mayors of several Chicago area towns that have been affected by a growing number of increasingly long trains hauling crude oil and other volatile materials.

WBBM Newsradio’s John Cody reports the mayors expressed concerns about traffic congestion and public safety from freight trains that they said have been getting longer and more dangerous, due to larger amounts of flammable crude oil they haul in outdated tanker cars.

The mayors spoke directly to Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo and Surface Transportation Board Chairman Dan Elliott III, at a meeting arranged by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.

The senator said approximately 25 percent of all freight train traffic travels through the Chicago area each day, including 40 trains hauling crude oil.

Barrington Village President Karen Darch said the village has seen a stark increase in the number of completely full freight trains hauling 100 or more carloads of crude oil or ethanol along the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway.

“Before, half of the community didn’t even know where the EJ&E Line was. There were a couple of trains at night. Now, several times a day, traffic – all traffic – comes to a halt as the train passes through town, and these can be hundred-car trains,” she said.

quebec derailment 1 Mayors Call For Improved Safety Measures For Oil Trains


Darch and other Chicago area mayors said their constituents have been plagued by frequent traffic jams caused by long trains rolling through the area, and are constantly worried that a fire or worse could erupt on old tankers carrying volatile liquids.

They mayors expressed concerns about a repeat of a July 2013 freight train derailment in Quebec that killed 47 people and destroyed dozens of buildings when multiple tanker cars filled with crude oil caught fire and exploded.

Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner said safe passage is mandatory.

“About a third of the rail accidents that do occur are related to failures of the rail infrastructure itself, and so our position is basically twofold: one, improve the tank cars and get rid of the ones that aren’t safe; and second, make the rails safe.”

Durbin said the issue requires some time to address.

“I’ve talked to the tank car manufacturers, and they understand that they have two responsibilities: build a safer car, but in the meantime retrofit existing cars,” he said.

The senator said there is no way to immediately and completely ban older style oil tanker cars, but said federal railroad officials are aware of the danger they pose, and that they must be upgraded or replaced as soon as possible.

Darch urged federal authorities to institute increased safety controls and reduced speed limits for even small trains hauling crude oil.

“A huge concern for us is what about all the trains that come through that have 19 cars or less of hazmat,” she said.

Federal railroad officials said proposed federal regulations would require increased testing to keep crude oil out of older style tankers. Railroads also would be required to notify local officials when crude oil trains will roll through, and impose a 40 mph speed limit on such trains.

South Carolina ethanol train derailment raises concerns

Repost from Greenville Online
[Editor: Note that recent new DOT rules do NOT require rail carriers to notify state emergency agencies concerning movement of ethanol trains.  Significant quote: “Ethanol rail transportation increased 500 percent from 2003-2012, according to the Association of American Railroads, while rail transport of crude oil increased more than 4,000 percent since 2008, according to Department of Transportation figures.”  Details on the derailment here.  – RS]

Upstate derailment puts focus on potential dangers

Nathaniel Cary, The Greenville News, August 4, 2014

Several times a week trains hauling millions of gallons of ethanol lumber along tracks through the heart of Upstate cities and towns, carrying the flammable gas toward a plant in Belton, where it’s then delivered to gas stations across the Southeast.

But in the dead of night on a recent Friday, something went wrong on the train’s journey.

It happened at 1:30 a.m. July 25 while the city of Spartanburg slept. A train, operated by CSX, went off the track. Before it could stop, an engine, a hopper car filled with sand and three tank cars filled with ethanol ended up in a ditch.

The ethanol-filled tankers landed upside down, and there they sat, within sight of houses and a few hundred yards across a field overgrown with kudzu from the city’s railroad museum and AMTRAK station.

The train was pulling 90 black tank cars filled with about two million gallons of ethanol, more than enough to fill three Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Fortunately, the train was moving very slowly around a curve and none of the cars punctured. No liquid spilled, no fire ignited, said Spartanburg Fire Chief Marion Blackwell.

Investigators with the Federal Railroad Administration are still trying to determine what caused the engine to leave the track, but the wreck highlighted a safety debate that’s arisen as the amount of crude oil and ethanol the nation transports by rail has increased exponentially with the country’s energy boom.

The Department of Transportation has proposed new rules to improve oil and ethanol train safety in the wake of derailments in recent years that have killed dozens, caused evacuations and spilled millions of gallons of oil and ethanol.

Transportation safety officials say trains are transporting higher amounts of crude oil and ethanol on trains that can stretch a mile long. Tank cars aren’t built thick enough to prevent punctures and spills when they are involved in accidents, and trains are driving too fast through urban areas, officials say.

Last July, a train operator didn’t brake sufficiently when a 72-car oil train went around a curve in the Quebec city of Lac Megantic. The train derailed and cars exploded, killing 47 people. Fires burned for days and destroyed the village center.

One woman died and two others were seriously injured in June 2009 while they waited at a train crossing in Cherry Hill, Illinois, when an ethanol train derailed and caught fire. An ethanol train that derailed in Pennsylvania in 2006 spilled 485,000 gallons and caused a two-day evacuation in parts of the city of New Brighton.

In South Carolina, there have been 145 incidents involving transportation of Class 3 flammable liquids — which includes crude oil and ethanol — by rail since 1972, when the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration began keeping track of data.

No lives were lost in those incidents, but they caused $2.8 million in damages, according to PHMSA data.

The most devastating train accident in South Carolina since 1972 took place in Graniteville in 2005 when a Norfolk Southern train carrying chlorine — a Class 2 gas — crashed into an idle train.

One of the tank cars holding chlorine breached and released the gas into the air. The train engineer and eight others died and 554 people were checked at hospitals for breathing difficulty, according to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

“I thought the wake-up call here would have been the chlorine gas spill,” said Susan Corbett, president of the 5,400-member South Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club.

The Sierra Club has come out in support of the proposed safety rules, though the club’s stance is that it’s taken too long to draft the rules and will take too long to implement the changes over the next three years.

“Anytime you’re moving this stuff around, either by rail or by truck, there’s always a risk,” Corbett said. “It definitely is something that should be of concern for all of us because of the health risks and disasters.”

Local routes

Trains carrying large quantities of ethanol travel through cities and towns in the Upstate more than 150 times every year. The routes run through the heart of Spartanburg and Greenville and through smaller towns like Williamston and Pelzer.

Most of the trains originate in Illinois and normally stretch 82 cars long, said Steven Hawkins, who as president and CEO of the Greenville & Western Railway Co., which owns and operates 13 miles of rail line from Pelzer to Belton in Anderson County, hauls the trains for the final leg of their trip.

The trains hold 80 cars of ethanol and two hopper cars, one at each end, filled with sand or gluten to act as a buffer between the “ignition source” engine and the hazardous materials cars, Hawkins said.

CSX runs the route from Illinois to Pelzer, where Hawkins’ Greenville & Western takes over, driving the final six miles to an ethanol plant in Belton owned by Lincoln Energy Solutions, a Greenville-based biofuel delivery company, he said.

That’s the route the train was following when it derailed in Spartanburg, CSX officials have said.

Greenville & Western runs about 150 routes each year with the hazardous material cars, he said.

The transportation safety board says the surge in ethanol production has altered the way ethanol is transported by rail. It used to be carried in smaller quantities, but now entire trains carry nothing but the flammable gas additive.

Ethanol rail transportation increased 500 percent from 2003-2012, according to the Association of American Railroads, while rail transport of crude oil increased more than 4,000 percent since 2008, according to Department of Transportation figures.

“While the soaring volumes of crude oil and ethanol traveling by rail has been good for business, there is a corresponding obligation to protect our communities and our environment,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman.

CSX participated in the Department of Transportation review and analysis of the current transportation practices and tank car standards and works closely with first responders, communities, oil producers, tank car owners and other railroads “to make the safe transportation of these important products ever safer,” CSX spokeswoman Carla Groleau said.

In May, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx issued an emergency order for rail carriers to notify state emergency agencies when trains pass through their states carrying more than 20 cars of volatile crude oil harvested from the Bakken shale region in North Dakota.

The South Carolina Emergency Management Division received notice from both of the state’s major rail carriers, CSX and Norfolk Southern, that they don’t transport Bakken crude oil through South Carolina in those amounts, spokesman Joe Farmer told The Greenville News.

No such notification is required for trains carrying ethanol.

Safety proposal

The Department of Transportation wants to phase out outdated tank cars — called DOT-111s — it calls vulnerable to puncture and explosion in a derailment.

Trains with any of the older cars would face speed limits of 40 miles per hour.

Tank car owners could retrofit the cars with a safer shell and better braking rather than switch to a new tank style. Trains that meet all standards could travel 50 mph outside of 100,000-population cities. Trains that don’t upgrade to enhanced braking systems would face a 30 mph limit.

The Department of Transportation would also require a risk assessment of rail routes and railroad conditions that high-hazard flammable trains use.

National ethanol groups balked at the safety proposals announced by the Department of Transportation, saying ethanol isn’t as volatile as Bakken crude oil and that the rules may paint with too broad a brush by classifying oil and ethanol together.

“Ethanol is a low volatility, consistent commercial product with a 99.997 percent rail safety record,” said Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association. “Unlike oil from fracking, ethanol is not a highly volatile feedstock of unknown and differing quality and characteristics being shipped to a refinery for commercial use.”

But ethanol and oil trains both use the DOT-111s that the NTSB called inadequate in the aftermath of the Cherry Hill ethanol disaster.

Only 14,000 tank cars of the 92,000 in the North American fleet are built to the latest industry standards, according to the Association of American Railroads.

The rules won’t change operations for the Greenville & Western because its train only travels 25 miles per hour and it doesn’t own any of the tank cars it transports, Hawkins said.

Tank car safety changes will be up to the shippers since they own most tank cars, he said.

Hawkins, who bought the short-rail line in 2006 after a 20-year-career in rail service, said he’s got a spotless safety record.

“We’re already at such a low speed anyway, not that we ever want to have that type of incident as has occurred, but at the slow speed that we operate, it would be a non-event,” Hawkins said.

Oil Boom, Part II: How and why railroads keep oil train information from communities

Repost from Boulder Weekly
[Editor: A good summary on the various states’ responses to weak new federal emergency regulations, and the oil and rail industries’ resistance to same.  – RS]

Oil Boom, Part II: How and why railroads keep oil train information from communities

By Matt Cortina, Thursday, July 31,2014

Last week’s Boulder Weekly cover story “Oil Boom” covered the proliferation of trains carrying volatile crude oil in outdated oil tanks through the hearts of Longmont, Boulder and Louisville. With industry estimates of an oil boom in the nearby Niobrara shale formation, Boulder County residents can expect that the risk of a potential explosion from an oil train will increase over the next decade.

On the day that story was published, documents were leaked from the state of Washington’s Military Department that showed the U.S. Department of Transportation and U.S. railroad companies like Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and Union Pacific pressured states to keep information about oil trains concealed from the public.

And so this brief part II to “Oil Boom” will take a look at why railroads are not required to tell citizens about oil trains, why this information needs to be a secret at all and how railroads are now working to enact soft oil transportation standards in order to save billions in revenue.

• • • •

Railroad companies have never been required to tell citizens, municipalities or states the contents of their train cars. Then, in May, the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered railroad companies to disclose to state emergency responders how many trains carrying one million gallons or more of crude oil from the Bakken shale region in North Dakota were coming through that state. This came after nine oil trains, many carrying Bakken crude oil, exploded or derailed in the last 12 months in the U.S. and Canada.

In response, railroad companies asked states to sign a confidentiality request form that would keep that information from being passed on to the public. Some states like California, New Jersey and Virginia signed the agreement. Colorado did not sign the agreement, but did ultimately decide to keep the information confidential.

Conversely, some states, such as Washington, North Dakota and Wisconsin, decided to make the information public. This was not without contention from the rail companies. When Montana said it would do the same, BNSF promptly wrote to the state that it would consider legal action to keep the information hidden.

And in Washington, one state official wrote in an email (obtained by DeSmogBlog), “looks like UP is trying to put the burden on us vis-à-vis information transfer on oil trains,” noting that Union Pacific’s confidentiality request claimed states were requesting information about Bakken crude oil shipments, instead of that railroads are now required to share that information.

All this fuss from railroad companies concerns just one mandate on one very large amount of oil from one of several drilling areas nationwide. And that information doesn’t need to be sent until 30 days after trains pass through the state.

This mandate is effectively irrele vant for Boulder County. Crude oil shipped through the county comes from the Niobrara in Northern Colorado. Transporting this crude, like everything that’s not one million gallons of Bakken crude, does not require notification even though it can still overheat and explode and it is still shipped in outdated, dangerous tanks.

What is relevant is that the Niobrara shale region has been deemed by the oil and gas industry as the “next Bakken” region, so legislation and precedent for that region will affect how crude oil is transported through Boulder County in the future.

Now, railroads can keep the majority of oil train information hidden from the public because they have help from federal and state officials.

For instance, in ordering railroads to share Bakken crude oil train information with local emergency responders, the U.S. Department of Transportation also encouraged states to keep that information from the public in a FAQ that accompanied the emergency order.

Mark Davis, Union Pacific regional media director, says the issue is that railroads could face “security” issues if conservative monthly data about crude oil transportation is made public.

“A lot of that is the historic security concerns that were started following 9/11,” says Davis. “I know that is something that on the security side, that from a federal standpoint, they’re taking a look at and reviewing that process.”

Davis added that he was “not sure” if any actual threats to Union Pacific oil trains have been recorded, but that the security detail on crude oil transport via rail is “massive” and involves national, state and local authorities.

According to Dave Hard, director of the Colorado Division of Emergency Management, the state of Colorado is keeping what little oil train information it does receive hidden from the public not because of security concerns but because it is “business confidential.”

“The original guidance we received from the Department of Transportation […] made it clear that at the time, the federal D.O.T. considered it security sensitive and business confidential,” Hard says.

Hard says his department and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Colorado Department of Public Safety then reviewed the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) standards and agreed that crude oil shipments were still “not subject to public disclosure.”

“They still maintain business confidentiality viewpoints. The state is still honoring that [all oil train information] is not for public disclosure, it is for the purposes of preparing [emergency response personnel],” Hard says.

Railroads are also subject to the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, which requires them to report the transport of hazardous materials to local and state emergency responders. But, for some reason, petroleum products including crude oil are exempt from this mandate.

The bottom line is that railroads are privately owned and not required to notify anyone of the contents of their trains. They are, at least, required to make their transport of volatile materials safe.

The Department of Transportation recently issued safety recommendations for railroads carrying crude oil. These recommendations included updated tank cars, new routing systems and reducing the speed of oil tank cars.

But railroads like BNSF, Union Pacific and CSX said implementing these safety measures would be too costly.

In a presentation to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which will amend and codify the safety standards introduced by the Department of Transportation, presenters for the railroads laid out the costs of implementing moderate safety measures.

First, railroads would pay $2.8 billion for capital improvements to railways across the country. Reducing the speed of trains would call for oil companies to build more tankers to the tune of $1.5 billion in order to maintain supply quotas. Reducing train speed would also cost the railroads themselves about $630 million per year because they’d have to pay for additional crew, fuel costs and “lost productivity of track maintenance workers.”

Train speed and outdated tank cars are by far the most common cause of derailments and explosions. Tank cars are not built for modern crude oil and train speed has many times caused modern volatile crude oil to overheat and explode.

BNSF went on to say that implementing these safety measures would take about four years and would result in “the immediate loss of existing business” and growth would be stifled.

Railroad officials and lobbyists are currently working beside federal lawmakers to carve out the new safety and notification rules for crude oil by rail transport. Initial regulations could come as soon as this year.


SF Chronicle: ‘Positive Train Control’ System can prevent train accidents, rail industry slow to adopt

Repost from The San Francisco Chronicle
[Editor:  (apologies for the commercial content…the video that follows the commercial is well worth the wait.)  The following San Francisco Chronicle article on Positive Train Control is incredibly important.  Until California is fully covered by a state-of-the-art collision-avoidance system, Valero should not be issued a use permit for crude by rail.  Significant quote from the article: “In the four-plus decades since the federal safety board began urging that the technology be installed, 139 crashes that could have been prevented with collision-avoidance systems have occurred on U.S. rail lines, resulting in 288 deaths and 6,500 injuries, according to internal records of the safety agency examined by Hearst Newspapers.”  – RS]

System can prevent train accidents, rail industry slow to adopt

New technology prevents accidents, but rail industry is dragging its feet
Bill Lambrecht, July 27, 2014
Jake Miille/Special to The Chronicle | A procession of tanker cars transporting Bakken crude oil travels on a railroad line near James (Butte County).

Faced with a huge increase in hazardous oil-carrying trains, California is urging quicker implementation of technology that would prevent train accidents caused by human error. But after pushing back against the idea for nearly half a century, the rail industry is far from ready to adopt the safety measure.

The technology monitors and controls train movements with a digital communications network that links locomotives with control centers. It’s designed to prevent collisions by automatically slowing or stopping errant trains that are going too fast, miss stop signals, enter zones with maintenance workers on the track or encounter other dangers.

Yet 45 years after the National Transportation Safety Board first recommended such a system, the technology, known as positive train control or PTC, operates only on a tiny slice of America’s rail network – including a segment of the Metrolink commuter rail line in Southern California, which has become a leader in adopting the technology after a crash near Chatsworth (Los Angeles County) killed 25 people and injured 102 in 2008. It is also coming soon to Caltrain in the South Bay and on the Peninsula.

In the four-plus decades since the federal safety board began urging that the technology be installed, 139 crashes that could have been prevented with collision-avoidance systems have occurred on U.S. rail lines, resulting in 288 deaths and 6,500 injuries, according to internal records of the safety agency examined by Hearst Newspapers.

During that time, the safety agency issued 75 PTC-related recommendations – formal advice to the industry and its federal regulator that has grown increasingly strident.

Railroad resistance

But the Hearst investigation found that even after early successes with the technology, its development has met continuous resistance from railroads unwilling to sacrifice profits for the safety that the system would provide.

The Federal Railroad Administration, charged with regulating the U.S. rail system, has frequently defied the safety board’s recommendations to install PTC. At times, it has joined with industry to push back against implementation.

Finally, shortly after the Chatsworth accident, in which one of the engineers was distracted while texting, Congress passed legislation mandating the installation of the control system on key portions of the nation’s rail network by the end of 2015.

Caltrain and Metrolink are among the few commuter lines in the country that say they expect to meet that deadline. But rising concern about trains hauling crude in the North American oil boom has put California at odds with the federal government about the pace of PTC and railroad safety in general.

Ten derailments

Since last year, 10 oil trains have derailed in the U.S. and Canada, including the catastrophic wreck a year ago in Quebec that killed 47 people in the small town of Lac-Mégantic.

The amount of oil arriving into California by rail jumped last year by 506 percent to 6.3 million barrels, a state interagency working group on rail safety reported last month.

The report predicted that by 2016, the amount of crude oil coming to California by train could increase by 150 million barrels if California’s five major refineries operate at capacity.

California recently learned that a Burlington Northern Santa Fe crude-carrying train is making weekly runs through the Feather River Canyon, into downtown Sacramento and south to Stockton, before ending up at the Tesoro refinery outside Martinez.

State officials are raising an array of concerns with the federal government about the sluggishness of implementation of the safety measures.

Congress and the Federal Railroad Administration are proposing delays in PTC deadlines, but the report last month from nine California agencies recommended just the opposite: accelerating the installation.

Heading off disaster

“We’re trying to do something before an accident happens instead of looking at a catastrophe and figure out how it could have been prevented,” said Kelly Huston, deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “A train with better technology to prevent it colliding with another train is safer than a train that doesn’t have that technology.”

Metrolink began running the collision-avoidance technology earlier this year on the line that runs from Los Angeles to Riverside.

“Our biggest challenge has been the fact that we’re out front as much as we are, so we’re the ones experiencing the bugs,” said Metrolink spokesman Jeff Lustgarten.

“The deadline was seven years out,” he added. “It wasn’t as if it were an unreasonable deadline.”

Caltrain is installing its $231 million safety system along the San Francisco-to-Gilroy line.

The Government Accountability Office and rail safety advocates have questioned whether the Federal Railroad Administration is prepared for the inspections and approvals for PTC. Caltrain echoes those concerns.

“I think they will be challenged from a resource point of view to get this done, and it seems likely that that is going to be a constraint on all of us,” said Karen Antion, a consultant who is directing Caltrain’s transition to the system.

Human factor

The collision-avoidance technology is designed to minimize the number of train disasters caused by human error, the cause of roughly 40 percent of derailments.

In the 1980s, Burlington Northern, plagued by a series of fatal accidents, was the first to act on a recommendation that the National Transportation Safety Board had issued nearly two decades before, calling on railroads to adopt an avoidance system. The railroad’s technology plotted the speed and positions of trains within 30 feet. If trains got too close and an engineer didn’t slow after warnings flashed on a locomotive computer screen, the system took over.

It became more than an experiment: For five years, Burlington Northern’s system operated on 17 locomotives on 300 miles of tracks in Minnesota. There were no accidents.

“All of the components worked as expected,” said Steven Ditmeyer, who was Burlington Northern’s research director at the time. “We had acceptance by train crews, dispatchers and maintenance people. There was no fear of the system and people could see its benefits.”

Momentum lost

The federal safety board soon turned up the heat, advising the Federal Railroad Administration in the early 1990s to establish a “firm timetable” for installing train control along America’s tracks.

But the opposite occurred. The 1990s were a time of upheaval in the industry, with mergers set in motion by deregulation. Amid the reorganizing and subsequent cost-cutting, railroads lost interest in train control.

In 1993, the Association of American Railroads prepared a 91-page study that laid out a case for benefits of the technology beyond avoiding wrecks: savings in fuel and labor costs, better traffic control, a means to monitor the condition of locomotives and “a better-rested and safer workforce.”

But rather than use the study to rally its members, the leaders of the railroad trade group ordered the study destroyed. The railroad association argued in 1995 that the new technology “must be justified on the basis of safety benefits only.”

The Federal Railroad Administration went along with what the industry wanted. Ditmeyer headed the agency’s Office of Research and Development after being deeply involved with the Burlington Northern project. In 1996, he testified at a congressional hearing that technical issues with the system still needed to be addressed.

In a recent interview, Ditmeyer recalled that testimony as “one of the things I regret most in my life. … I was forced to say it was not ready to implement.”

Congress acts

After 9/11, the railroads’ focus shifted to protecting against terrorist attacks, and collision-avoidance technology was pushed even further down the priority list.

Finally, after the Chatsworth crash, Congress passed a measure requiring implementation of PTC and President George W. Bush signed it into law. But the delays were far from over.

In 2010, the Association of American Railroads filed suit challenging federal rules for installing the new technology, arguing that “while the costs of PTC are tremendous, the benefits are relatively few.” Four years later, the suit drags on.

Michael Rush, associate general counsel of the Association of American Railroads, said his members are committed to the technology, but that key components are still in a developmental stage.

“It is a work in progress. We’re trying to do something that’s not been done before,” he said.

In the run-up to the 2015 deadline, Americans don’t have the opportunity to measure progress in installing the technology. The federal railroad agency rejected a National Transportation Safety Board recommendation to post railroads’ updates online.

“To publish this information would likely mislead and confuse the public,” agency administrator Joseph Szabo said in a letter, adding that it would “waste valuable agency resources.”

Robert Sumwalt, a member of the federal safety board, said in an interview that the railroad agency’s “response to this was, frankly, appalling.”

Drop in accidents

The railroad agency defends its safety record, pointing to a 50 percent drop in rail accidents over the past decade. The agency also touts a voluntary agreement that went into effect July 1 under which oil trains reduce speed in urban areas and take pains to identify routes with the fewest risks.

The Federal Railroad Administration favors a plan to deal with railroads’ plans to install the safety system incrementally, not setting any overall deadline. Testifying at a Senate hearing this spring, Szabo said the open-ended plan would set milestones for individual railroads and “achieve the benefit of PTC as much as possible as soon as possible.”

Other proposals in Congress would delay the technology beyond 2015.

“Pure trouble” is how Grady Cothen, the agency’s former associate administrator for safety, sums up the agency’s open-ended deadline proposal. “There is a place for FRA discretion, but there has to be a framework,” he said.

Sumwalt said he and other federal safety board members “were feeling good” after Congress ordered the collision-avoidance technology six years ago.

“And now we’re finding that it’s going to be delayed even further,” he said. “It’s frustrating to see accidents continue to happen that we know PTC would have prevented.”

This story has been corrected since it appeared in print editions.

Bill Lambrecht is a reporter in the Hearst Newspapers Washington bureau.