Senate Working to Strip Braking Safety Requirements From Oil Train Regulations

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As documented on DeSmog, the new oil-by-rail regulations contain major concessions to the oil and rail industries as the result of relentless lobbying during the rulemaking process. One logical safety measure that the rail industry failed to block from the new rules was a requirement for modern braking systems know as electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes.

However, the rail industry has a Plan B to avoid modernizing their braking systems and so far it is working quite well.

In late June, the Republican-controlled Senate Commerce Committee approved a measure to drop the ECP braking requirement and instead order years of new research, a delay tactic favored by Warren Buffett’s Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) railroad.

Of course, no research is needed to review the existing air braking systems because they were invented in the 1860s, and in the past 150 years their limitations have become well known.

Anytime you put the air on, you’re subject for something to go wrong,” explained Dana Maryott, director of locomotive and air-brake systems at the BNSF Railway.

In the above statement, the phrase “put the air on” refers to applying braking on freight trains.

We’ve had long trains where the engineer released the brake and started pulling a little bit too early, while the brakes were still set on the rear of the train,” explained Maryott, “And coming around a sharp radius, we’ve literally pulled the train off the track.”

Maryott was explaining some of the risks of air braking systems for a 2009 article for the engineering publication the IEEE Spectrum.

That article explained how ECP brakes were a modernized and superior braking system.

In a 2010 Progressive Railroading article about rail braking and safety, Larry Breeden, general manager of operating practices for Union Pacific railroad, gave his positive opinion on ECP brakes.

“The effectiveness of the brakes is advanced. It gets instantaneous braking, plus I can graduate the release. It gives better train control and reduced fuel consumption. You also get better brake shoe and wheel life.”

Breeden then compared another safety advantage of ECP brakes over air braking systems.

“If something goes wrong, you wouldn’t know it with an air brake. With ECP, you have a display that will tell you if something begins to fail.”

To be fair, they didn’t have “displays” back in the 1860s when air brakes were invented so it isn’t really an apples-to-apples comparison.

But these positive reviews of ECP braking by employees of the two major rail companies, BNSF and Union Pacific, provide a clear indication that they understood the benefits of ECP brakes years ago.

Regulators Past and Present Agree ECP Brakes Are “More Important Than the Tank Car Itself,” and “A Quantum Improvement in Rail Safety”

Cynthia Quarterman was in charge of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) for the majority of the multi-year process when the new oil-by-rail regulations were developed, and based on that process she believes ECP brakes are a top priority. 

“The more I think about it, the more I think that the ECP brakes may be more important than the tank car itself,” Quarterman told USA Today. “Because it would stop the pileup of the cars when there’s a derailment or when there’s a need to brake in a very quick fashion.”

Quarterman has plenty of company when it comes to this position.

In 2006, Joseph Boardman, the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) explained why ECP brakes were superior.

ECP brakes are to trains what antilock brakes are to automobiles—they provide better control.” He also is on record saying that ECP braking “offers a quantum improvement in rail safety.”

And the FRA stands by these earlier statements, as Matt Lehner, communications director for the administration, recently told DeSmog. 

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.”

Despite Evidence of ECP Braking Benefits, Senate Republicans and Industry Prefer Status Quo

Judging by all of the above quotes and analysis, it seems there is plenty of research and wide support for the benefits of ECP braking.

So why did the Senate Commerce committee just pass a measure to overrule the new PHMSA regulations that would require oil trains to use ECP brakes starting in 2021?

Because that is what BNSF and the rail industry now wants so they can maximize profits from the booming oil train business — a commodity business that didn’t much exist back in 2006 when the FRA began recommending ECP brakes based on existing research.

Buffett’s BNSF Ready to Fight ECP Brakes, Safety Requirements

BNSF isn’t coy about its intentions to fight the regulations requiring ECP brakes on oil trains. At the U.S. Energy Information Administration annual conference last month, BNSF CEO Matthew Rose delivered a keynote speech in which he repeatedly criticized the ECP requirement in the regulations.

Rose made it clear that BNSF had plans to get the rules changed saying, “the only thing we don’t like about it [new regulations] is the electronic braking” and “this rule will have to be changed in the future” and “our role is to articulate where they went wrong with it and get it fixed.”

So, what has changed with ECP braking that BNSF is now against it and the new regulations need to be “fixed”?

Nothing. Other than the fact that outfitting the oil trains with ECP brakes would cost money. Money the rail industry doesn’t want to spend.

In order to justify this position, the industry has to make the case that ECP brakes aren’t safer. The American Association of Railroads is currently running ads on Google saying that “Safety data doesn’t support use of ECP brakes.”

Image: Screen capture of Google ad from American Association of Railroads.

So, the rail industry is employing the exact same approach that the oil industry is using to avoid making the oil safe to transport in the first place — arguing that the effectiveness of ECP brakes hasn’t been proven, and that they need to do more research, despite the fact that plenty of research confirms the plain benefits of ECP over air brakes.

When questioned about the Senate’s effort to remove ECP braking requirements, Frederick Hill, the committee’s Republican spokesman, said that ECP brakes could be required “should new research demonstrate the technology’s benefits.”

Apparently they are ignoring the existing research, including a study commissioned by the FRA a decade ago.

In 2005, the Federal Railroad Administration commissioned consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton to study the benefits and costs of ECP brakes for the U.S. freight-rail industry. Released in 2006, the firm’s report (PDF) stated that the brakes are a “tested technology” that offers “major benefits” and could “significantly enhance” rail safety.

In 2010, Mark Schulze, a vice president of safety and training at BNSF, summed up the company’s position on ECP brakes.

“If you had a magic wand and could implement it with one fell swoop that would be great.”

Unfortunately there is no magic wand to implement ECP braking. But it appears that Matthew Rose of BNSF and others are working their own special lobbying magic to influence Congress to remove the ECP requirements from the new oil-by-rail regulations.

And while it may not be a magic wand, so far it is working like a charm.

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Justin Mikulka is a research fellow at New Consensus. Prior to joining New Consensus in October 2021, Justin reported for DeSmog, where he began in 2014. Justin has a degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Cornell University.

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