Can We Get Serious about Train Safety? Technology Could Reduce 40 Percent of Rail Accidents

UPDATE (Oct. 23, 2015): Earlier this week was “Back to the Future Day,” the exact day and year that Marty McFly time travels to in the iconic 1980s movie trilogy. The film makers celebrated human innovation by imagining a world where people embraced new technology (some that actually did evolve).

But in the real 2015, we have life-saving technology at our disposal that the railroad industry is refusing to adopt. By December 31, 2015, all railroads carrying passengers or hazardous materials were supposed to adopt Positive Train Control (PTC), a system that responds when conductors fail to observe speed limits or other signals. PTC could have prevented the horrific train derailment in Philadelphia this spring that killed 8 passengers and injured over 200 more.

But more than five years after rules requiring these safeguards were issued by the Federal Railroad Administration, railroad companies have petitioned for an extension, complaining about the high cost of installation. Congress added a three-year extension to adopt PTC to the highway funding bill, which would allow companies to apply for an additional two years to install the technology. Given the industry’s already sluggish pace, it may take at least another five years before PTC is installed on the majority of train routes.

In the meantime, railroad profits have skyrocketed due to the increase in oil-by-rail, meaning the industry clearly has available funding to implement the technology. Simultaneously, fiery oil train derailments have increased, providing even greater urgency to adopt PTC. It’s time for the railroad industry to join the future and adopt technology that will save lives.   


Original post from 3-24-2015

Last month, we wrote about the rise in crude oil train accidents and the need to approve federal crude-by-rail safeguards as quickly as possible. These rules, currently under review by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, would require thicker walls on oil tankards and impose speed limits on oil trains.

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Federal Railroad Administration to Issue Additional Standards to Prevent Oil Train Derailments

UPDATE (Oct. 9, 2015): The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is expected to release new standards today that address track inspection and maintenance. This follows the administration’s eight-month investigation into the February oil train derailment in West Virginia, which found that broken rail caused the derailment.

Broken rails account for approximately 15 percent of train derailments – more than any other cause. Yet railroad companies are failing to identify and fix problems. In fact, CSX – the company that owned the track where February’s derailment occurred – identified issues with the section of track in the weeks preceding the accident but failed to take action.

The new standards will require railroad companies to fix rail issues or slow trains when crossing sections with safety issues. 

UPDATE (May 1, 2015): The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) released their final rule today on crude-by-rail safeguards. These rules will apply to trains carrying certain amounts of flammable liquids, including Bakken crude oil and other flammable substances like ethanol.

The rule requires all tank cars constructed after Oct. 1, 2015 to have shells that are at least 9/16th of an inch thick. Older cars that do not meet this standard must be retrofitted within the next two to 10 years, depending on car type.

The rule also requires rail companies to adopt advanced braking systems over the next six to eight years, including electronically controlled pneumatic systems (ECP) that allow train cars to brake simultaneously and decrease stopping distances. The rule sets an overall speed limit of 50 mph for oil trains and a 40 mph limit for trains passing through densely populated urban areas while carrying cars not yet meeting the new tank car standards.

Unfortunately, the rule does not require railroad companies to notify state and local officials when they are moving crude and other hazardous materials through their jurisdictions. Instead, state and local decision makers must contact railroads to ask for routing information, and the companies are required to provide officials with the industry contact person who can address their questions. This is an unnecessarily roundabout way to disclose crucial information to those charged with protecting residents and businesses from health hazards and destruction in the event of an oil train derailment or explosion.

A bill introduced yesterday by seven Senate Democrats seeks to eliminate this communication gap and grant much-needed resources to local emergency response teams. It would require railroad companies to provide real-time data on train movements and would also raise revenue for advanced training on responding to oil train accidents. The bill would also speed up the phase-out of older, more dangerous tank car models. 

UPDATE (Mar. 25, 2015): Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) introduced legislation today that would create stronger crude-by-rail safeguards than those currently under review by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Among other things, the Cantwell-Baldwin bill would require the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to limit the volatile gases in crude oil that is transported by rail. The PHMSA and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) rules currently under review require thicker tank car shells but do not regulate the crude itself, which is highly volatile and can explode during accidents. 

The Cantwell-Baldwin bill would also ban certain classes of older tank cars, immediately removing 37,700 unsafe cars from use. It requires railroad companies to alert state and local emergency response officials when moving crude through communities and significantly increases fines for violations.  


Original post from 2-18-2015

A 300-Foot High Fireball from an Exploding Bakken Oil Train: When Will New Rail Safety Standards Be Approved?

On Presidents' Day, a train carrying volatile crude oil derailed in Fayette County, West Virginia, igniting several railcars and creating a fireball 300 feet high. While no one was seriously injured, the incident is a stark reminder of the need for stronger safeguards to protect communities near the tracks that transport crude oil.

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It’s Time to Hold Major Corporate Executives Personally Accountable for Criminal Behavior

General Motors (GM) withheld information on defective ignition switches, Takata knowingly produced defective airbags, Toyota concealed information regarding unexpected vehicle acceleration, and Volkswagen (VW) deliberately violated clean air laws by undermining their vehicle pollution emission controls.  

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Debunking the Texas Miracle

In a Forbes opinion piece last week Christi Craddick, one of Texas’ three elected members of the Railroad Commission, the public entity responsible for regulating the oil and gas industries, asked that presidential candidates spell out their national energy plan – and suggested that Texas would serve as a good model.

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Two Years Ago, President Obama Directed Federal Agencies to Prevent Chemical Disasters. Are We Any Safer Now?

In April 2013, an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas killed 15 people, injured more than 200, and levelled nearby homes and schools. President Obama visited West in the aftermath and promised to improve our nation’s chemical safety laws. On Aug. 1, 2013, he issued an executive order directing federal agencies to revise their chemical safety policies to ensure that a West-type tragedy never happens again.

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Working 9 to 5: Upgraded Overtime Rule Could Help Restore 40-Hour Work Week for Millions of Americans

Last week, the White House announced a long-anticipated new rule that upgrades Americans' access to overtime pay. Worker advocates, economists, and unions have been working with the Obama administration and U.S. Department of Labor for years to modernize the rules on overtime, and thanks to their efforts, millions of salaried employees will be paid for the work they do beyond the standard 40 hours per week.

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Does EPA's New Finding on Airplane Emissions Clear the United States for Takeoff on Climate Change Standards?

Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a proposed finding that linked airplane emissions to climate change and adverse public health effects, setting the stage for future standards on aircraft emissions. In the past few years, the EPA has moved forward with regulating greenhouse gases from electricity and transportation, which make up 60 percent of all climate change pollution in the U.S. Will it push one more rule through?   

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Once Again, Benefits of Public Standards and Safeguards Far Outweigh Costs

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recently issued an annual report to Congress that finds the benefits of major standards and safeguards far outweigh their costs. It serves as yet another indicator of the value of public protections and the positive impacts they have on Americans' everyday lives.

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Time for Three Strikes and You're Out for Banks?

On May 20, five of the biggest banks in the world pleaded guilty to charges of interest rate manipulation and agreed to pay $2.8 billion in fines for the felonies they committed. Two of the banks, J.P. Morgan Chase and Citigroup, are U.S.-based. Each has a long rap sheet of recent settlements for their corporate misdeeds, and each has paid large fines and settlements -- nearly $35 billion in the case of JP Morgan Chase. But otherwise, these businesses go on with no reduction of rights or privileges and with no decision makers being sent to prison.

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Senate Committee Fails to Fix Flawed Chemical Bill

On April 28, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works reviewed proposed legislation from Sens. David Vitter (R-LA) and Tom Udall (D-NM) to revise the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), our nation's primary chemical safety law. Despite numerous attempts to constructively amend the flawed bill, the committee failed to fix the legislation and sent it on to the Senate floor.

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