The war over electric brakes

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Sometimes it’s helpful to think of modern Class I railroads as collections of separate silos (or maybe moated castles), each jealously guarding its prerogatives. There’s a Track Silo at every headquarters, a Transportation Silo, a Marketing Silo, and a Signal Silo, to name several. They don’t share a lot with each other. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if the industry’s chief financial officers had been given primary responsibility for implementing positive train control. By enforcing discipline on the Signal Silos, we might have ended up with a system twice as productive at half the projected $13 billion cost. And if you wonder whatever happened to liquefied natural gas as locomotive fuel, it probably ran afoul of the Not Invented Here laws of the Mechanical Silos.

Now come electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, better known as ECP. The U.S. Department of Transportation told railroads that crude oil trains of more than 69 cars must have ECP braking by 2021 or it will restrict these trains to 30 mph at all times. At this, the normally unflappable Ed Hamberger, president of the Association of American Railroads, went haywire. “First and foremost, the DOT has no substantial evidence to support a safety justification for mandating ECP brakes, which will not prevent accidents,” Hamberger said. “The DOT couldn’t make a safety case for ECP but forged ahead anyhow.” Expect the AAR to challenge this rule in court.

It seems electronic braking has no friends in the railroad industry. I find this puzzling. Research I’ve read suggests there is both a safety and business case to be made. One explanation for the bum’s rush being given ECP comes from someone whose career was immersed in railroad technology: “The mechanical departments say the ECP brakes don't save enough on wheels and brake shoes to justify implementation. The track departments say that ECP brakes don't reduce rail wear enough to justify implementation. Transportation departments say that ECP brakes don't save enough fuel to justify implementation. And improved train running times, improved train dynamics, and improved engineer performance are all soft-dollar savings which don't count. No one ever bothers to sum up total benefits.” Silos, in other words.

So I’ll make the case for ECP. (By the way, the standards were developed two decades ago by the same AAR that now vigorously opposes their implementation.) A train equipped with electronic braking is hard-wired, allowing instant communication from airbrake handle in the locomotive to every brake valve on the cars. The principal advantages are that all brakes instantly apply and release at the same time, the air supply is continually charged, engineers can gradually release and reapply brakes, and undesired emergency braking (dynamiters, they’re called) virtually disappear. In-train forces, such as slack roll-in and roll-out, are greatly reduced, and that lessens the risk of derailment. Moreover, stopping distance is reduced 40 to 60 percent, permitting higher train speeds and higher speeds approaching restricting signals. Longer trains are possible. Longer trains run at higher speeds increase the capacity of the railroad network. Because air is always charging, braking power is inexhaustible; plus, a train can stop and instantly restart. Brakes, draft gear, wheels, and bearings require less maintenance. Existing federal regulations would allow train inspections every 5,000 miles instead of the present 1,500 or 1,000 miles.

Those are a lot of advantages. In a report commissioned by the Federal Railroad Administration in 2005, the consulting company Booz Allen Hamilton estimated the cost of full implementation of ECP at $6 billion and the measurable savings (not including added network capacity) at $650 million a year. Booz recommended that ECP conversion begin with coal trains loaded in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, then to other types of unit trains (presumably including intermodal trains), and finally the rest of the car fleet — all in a 15-year time frame. “As applied to western coal service,” its report stated, “the business case is substantial,” with a recovery of all costs within three years.

And yet, a decade later, nothing has happened, and probably at the urging of his member railroads, Ed Hamberger is fightin’ mad and probably on his way to federal court.

Several things are going on here. Silos are one. Nobody is looking at the big picture, just his or her little piece of it. The boys in the Mechanical Silo could care less about increased network capacity. The occupants of the Finance Silo don’t want to divert cash flow away from share buybacks, their favorite toy. Most of those in the CEO Silo didn’t come up on the operating side and are probably bored by the subject. In a conservative, mature business like railroading, risk taking and even forward thinking are not rewarded. And the cost of hard-wiring the car fleet would primarily be borne by shippers, who own most of the equipment, whereas railroads would reap the benefits. How to share the benefits with car-owning shippers leads to very difficult negotiations.

Let’s just say I don’t understand this whole display of foot-dragging. In a presentation the AAR made earlier this year, the trade group appeared to be saying that because accident rates have decreased substantially in recent years, ECP really isn’t necessary. As I write this, news comes in of yet another crude oil train jumping the tracks, this time before it could even get out of North Dakota. Oil train derailments are devastating the reputation of the railroad industry. My point is that yes, accident rates are way down and that’s good, and yes, one hell of a lot more needs doing. And reducing accidents is just one benefit of ECP braking.

Something tells me the AAR is going to lose this one.

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