I am just trying to help the president

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, January 24, 2011

President Obama the other day issued an executive order mandating “a government-wide review of the rules already on the books to remove outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive.” Go here. That’s a fine idea, even though I am skeptical anything of note will come of it. After all, within a day, the Environmental Protection Agency announced all its regulations were good as gold. But if the president is really serious, the White House should instruct the Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration to cut the railroads a break on positive train control. And I can suggest just the rule to slice.
Positive train control is collision-avoidance technology that Congress in 2008 ordered be placed by the start of 2016 on Class I rail routes that handle either passenger trains or freights containing toxic inhalation hazard chemicals. PTC is incredibly expensive to install and not cheap to maintain, either. Moreover, railroad money instead of government money is paying for all this, and the government admits the rails will get only $1 of benefits for every $22 invested in PTC. This sort of unproductive spending is just the thing the president wants to stop.
I’m not suggesting that the PTC mandate be repealed; Congress has to do that, and we’ve gone too far anyway. But one simple rule change would save the railroads $1 billion or more without increasing the risks of injuries or deaths from hazardous materials leaks.
In a rulemaking decision to implement the 2008 law, the Federal Railroad Administration said rail lines that handled TIH commodities during 2008 must be equipped with positive train control by 2016. Railroads had argued that other arms of government are already prodding them to concentrate TIH carloads on the fewest number of track miles, while chemical giants such as Dow and DuPont are moving away from making chlorine, one of the most common TIH commodities. Railroads asked that TIH movements in 2015 rather than 2008 be the trigger for PTC installation.
At the moment, 73,000 route miles are slated for PTC. Using TIH traffic patterns in 2015 would eliminate the cost of putting PTC on more than 10,000 of those miles, I’m told, and allow the railroad industry to invest the $1 billion or more in savings in more productive uses.
I can think of only one reason for the FRA’s 2008 benchmark, and that is to put PTC on as many miles of railroad as possible. Like the railroads, the agency knows that toxic chemicals will be shifted away from many rail lines during the next few years. But the FRA stood its ground, so now the Association of American Railroads is asking a federal appellate court to rule that the agency exceeded its authority by mandating the 2008 TIH route map. President Obama could make that lawsuit moot by doing the right thing and telling FRA to quit being the schoolyard bully. — Fred W. Frailey

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