Freight Rail Conundrum: Speed vs. Safety

Safety would win hands down for passenger rail, but for-profit railroads have a bottom line to consider. Regulators have proposed reduced train speeds, opposed by railroads, to prevent fiery derailments that have resulted from shipping shale oil.
October 18, 2014, 11am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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"U.S. railroads are rallying customers, including lumber and steel executives, to fight a government safety proposal to slow trains hauling another commodity: crude oil," writes Jim Snyder of Bloomberg News. 

Safety advocates say the speed limits and other proposed regulations are important to cut the risks of hauling crude. The U.S. Transportation Department [DOT] is reviewing more than 1,000 comments submitted on the proposed standard. Final rules may be issued this year or in early 2015.

In response to the proposed speed limits, railroads have rallied "(m)ore than a dozen companies and business groups (to warn) regulators that cutting speeds to 40 miles an hour from 50 would have a cascading effect, delaying other trains sharing the tracks carrying cargo such as furniture, grain and electronics," writes Snyder.

The speed restrictions are but one of several regulations proposed by DOT. According to the July 23, 2014 press release, the "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) proposes enhanced tank car standards [see post here], a classification and testing program for mined gases and liquids and new operational requirements for high-hazard flammable trains (HHFT) that include braking controls and speed restrictions."

As far as speed reductions, the lower speed limitation only applies to substandard rail cars that have been associated with most of the fiery oil-train derailments, most notably the deadly July 2013 explosion that destroyed downtown Lac Mégantic, Quebec. Specifically, the NPRM indicates:

Reduced operating speeds.

  • Requests comment on three speed restriction options for HHFTs that contain any tank cars not meeting the enhanced tank car standards proposed by this rule:
  1. a 40-mph maximum speed restriction in all areas;
  2. a 40-mph speed restriction in high threat urban areas[1]; and,
  3. a 40-mph speed restriction in areas with a 100K+ population
  • If tank cars in the HHFT meet specifications finalized in the enhanced tank car section of this rule, speed would be limited to 50-mph in all areas (rather than 40-mph).
  • Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) also will evaluate a 30-mph speed restriction for HHFTs that do not comply with enhanced braking requirements.

"Regulators have to balance safety with mounting demands on the U.S. rail network, which hauls about 40 percent of all freight, such as vehicles, chemicals and commodities," writes Snyder. The Renewable Fuels Association testified that the rail congestion must get resolved "without favoring Bakken crude."

Maria Gallucci of International Business Times writes about the effect of the increased shale oil and coal exports on both train on road traffic where grade crossings occur, according to a Sept. 2014 federal transportation report [PDF].

If freight flows continue to rise as expected, it could 'exacerbate (road traffic) congestion issues' and raise new safety concerns in communities near train tracks, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent agency, said in its investigation."

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Published on Wednesday, October 15, 2014 in The Gazette
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