The tough new rules of oil by rail?

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, June 13, 2014

Railroads came to Washington this week to make the case at the White House against what could be tough new rules being drawn up by the U.S. Department of Transportation for handling crude oil. The proposals, which have not yet been made public, may involve slowing crude oil trains to a top speed of 30 mph, requiring such trains to never be left unattended, and ordering them equipped with electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes.

The news service Politico revealed the June 10 meeting in a story published Friday. While DOT won’t discuss the substance of the proposed rules, documents made public by OMB disclose what railroads believe may in the forthcoming regulations. OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs reviews all proposed federal regulations, focusing on (among other things) costs versus benefits they entail. The meeting was held at the request of the Association of American Railroads and the American Short Line & Regional Railroad Association, and was attended by 16 railroad executives and 10 government officials.

One rail executive admits that attendees from the industry were “shooting arrows in the dark” because the DOT proposal remains shrouded in secrecy. But he says that increasingly DOT officials in conversations talk of a “crude by rail regulatory package” which would include operational measures. What would those be? Based on documents brought to the meeting by the railroaders, they might include:

Imposing speed restrictions. BNSF Railway’s Rollin Bredenberg, vice president of capacity planning and operations research, presented the impact of a mandated 30 mph speed limit for crude oil trains on his railroad’s Northern Transcon, between Aurora, Ill., and Spokane, Wash. This line would lose 7% of its capacity, and BNSF would require $800 million in additional capital to regain that capacity. That, or Amtrak’s Empire Builder would need its schedule lengthened 2.2 hours, while intermodal freights would require 2.8 additional hours to get over the road and manifest trains 6.1 hours. “This is essentially an unfunded investment mandate,” Bredenberg’s white paper states. He goes on to say BNSF would need to spend an additional $2 billion to recover lost capacity on other parts of its railroad, should a 30-mph speed limit be imposed on oil trains. Railroads have already agreed to cap oil train speeds at 40 mph through most urban areas.

Mandating electronic brakes. John Rimer, chief mechanical officer of CSX Transportation, put the cost of converting from airbrakes to electronic (ECP) brakes at somewhere between $8,000 and $15,000 per car and $25,000-$50,000 per locomotive. A paper he presented says that neither ECP brakes nor distributed power (locomotives placed amid or at the rear of a train that are controlled by the engineer at the front) would have any impact on preventing accidents and minimal effect on the distance required to stop a train.

Attending trains. Chris Brasher, Norfolk Southern's assistant vice president for operating rules, explained why trains are sometimes left unattended (route impassible, terminals at capacity, maintenance windows, crew shortages) and why this shouldn’t be worrisome (communication with dispatchers, inspections after firefighters have boarded a train, locking the controlling locomotive and removing the reverser and so forth). What the railroads are saying is that the the practice is safe when rules are obeyed and that babysitting trains is not without costs.

How this all sorts out, I’ve no idea. Why even guess? The rail exec I spoke to said all these issues have been raised as potential regulations by DOT people. I do confess that I was off the mark when I said a few weeks ago (go here) that railroads have surrendered the dialogue about crude oil by rail to the environmental know-nothings and their political allies. There is, in fact, a lot going on, and the events of this week appear to prove the point. So I stand corrected. On the other hand, will someone please tell me how many people have been either injured or killed this year or last by oil train derailments in this country? The answer, so far as I know, is zero and zero. Yes, Lac-Megantic (47 dead in a Quebec oil-train disaster last year) is unforgettable. But let’s retain our perspective. — Fred W. Frailey

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