There Will Be Blood - Oil Train Regulations Fail To Address Known Risks

Railroad rules have been written in blood.” This line was included in the annual report of the Commissioner of Railroads for the state of Michigan — in 1901. The idea was that safety rules were only implemented when enough blood had been spilled.

One hundred and fifteen years later, in an opinion piece on rail safety for CNN, rail expert Fred Failey essentially said the same thing, opening his piece with the statement, “The rules by which trains operate on American railroads were written in blood.”

When it comes to the rules regarding oil trains in America, many regulations that would improve safety have yet to be written. One reason is that, despite the multiple oil train crashes resulting in massive explosions in the past several years, there have been no fatalities in America.

Although 47 people did die in the Lac-Megantic oil train crash just north of the Maine border in Canada, that apparently isn’t enough to change the tradition of the rail industry fighting any regulations that might improve public safety.

The Oil-By-Rail Industry Doesn’t Want to Be Regulated

An investigation by the Federal Railroad Administration(FRA) into the Mount Carbon oil train derailment concluded that the cause of the accident was a broken rail. At that time, Sarah Feinberg, the FRA’s acting administrator, noted that, “Broken rail is one of the leading causes of accidents.”

So what are the regulations regarding rails becoming worn and increasing the risk of derailments? There are none.

As the Associated Press (AP) reported in December, efforts to improve safety via rail wear regulations were stopped by the rail industry in 2013 in favor of “voluntary” safety measures.

Richard Inclima, head of the union representing rail inspectors, summed up the reality of what happened, “There was certainly a lot of pushback and a lot of political pressure put on FRA not to adopt regulations for rail wear. The industry doesn’t want to be regulated. That’s no secret.”

Following the Mount Carbon accident, the FRA is making plans to once again try for rail wear regulations.

FRA confirmed to DeSmog,“The Federal Railroad Administration has started its internal process to move forward with a rule to establish rail wear standards.”

Of course, the industry will once again flex its lobbying muscle to create “a lot of pushback and a lot of political pressure.” And these rulemaking processes take years. So, there is a well-established known risk and leading contributor to derailments — and still no regulations while the bomb trains roll on — because the industry doesn’t want them.

Modern Braking System Regulation Challenged in Transportation Bill

The new regulations released in May 2015 require oil trains to have modern electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) braking systems by 2021. Last year Matt Lehner, communications director for the administration, clearly stated the administration’s support for ECP brakes.

ECP brakes are a proven technology that will reduce the number of train derailments and keep more tank cars on the track if a train does derail. Delaying the adoption of ECP brakes seriously jeopardizes the citizens and communities along our nation's freight network.”

The brakes currently used on oil trains are air brakes, a technology developed in the 1870s. That 1901 report noted, “Considerable progress has been made in the equipment of freight cars with air brakes.”

The report also noted that new passenger cars had modern gas lighting. The lighting technology has been updated on current trains. The brakes have not.

However, as reported on DeSmog, in June the head of BNSF railroad stated he will not stand for this regulation. Last year, a Senate subcommittee tried to remove the ECP requirements from the regulations but the effort did not move forward.

Good news for all of those citizens and communities along our nation’s freight network, right?  Not so fast. Thetransportation bill passed at the end of 2015 provides the framework for the industry to remove the ECPbraking requirement.

The bill includes a section that outlines how a study will be done on the effectiveness of ECP braking systems — a study of what the Federal Railroad Administration calls “a proven technology.”

And if the study finds that the costs of modern ECP brakes outweigh the benefits, then the Secretary of Transportation must “repeal the applicable ECP brake system requirements.”

Meanwhile, in the past year, the Association of American Railroads ran ads saying that data doesn’t support the use ofECP brakes.

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