Thursday, April 23, 2015

DOT “suggests” and FRA “recommends”

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DOT “suggests” and FRA “recommends”
The U.S. Department of Transportation circulated a press release detailing actions taken to “address some of the issues identified in recent train accidents involving crude oil and ethanol shipped by rail.”

First of these actions is FRA’s recommendation “that only the highest skilled inspectors conduct brake and mechanical inspections of trains transporting large quantities of flammable liquids and that industry decrease the threshold for wayside detectors that measure wheel impacts, to ensure the wheel integrity of tank cars in those trains.”

I’ll pause a second, so you can read that again.

OK? Done? Good. Now I don’t know if this is the most inane recommendation ever made, but it’s close. And I know I’m a cynical, jaded person, but somehow I suspect DOT of . . . hedging. DOT is aware that the volume of hazmat shipments by rail has climbed to about 30,000 carloads per week (a number that, like all things in the economy, will fluctuate “with the market”). DOT knows that a comprehensive program, a systems approach, for reducing the likelihood of catastrophic release of content is the most effective and efficient way to address the risk to the public. However, DOT is reluctant to direct FRA to develop new rules, standards and requirements for the mechanical inspection of rolling stock and track to reduce that risk.

So DOT “suggests” and FRA “recommends,” and when another derailment occurs, FRA is left twisting slowly in the cold wind blowing from NTSB, while DOT proclaims it is developing a multi-agency approach—again.

FRA is charged with establishing and enforcing standards for safe railroading. This includes rolling stock, signals, track and operations. FRA establishes requirements necessary for the training, qualification, evaluation and supervision of railroad personnel responsible for executing those standards, that general code for safe train operations. If and when those standards for rolling stock or track or operations or for the qualification and evaluation of personnel are no longer adequate, then the standards must be changed. No general code of operations can be successful if its execution can only be achieved by a small section, “the best,” “the most experienced” personnel.

If DOT deems FRA’s standards for rolling stock inspection and ensuring safe train operations are no longer sufficient given a pattern of incidents, it is obligated to direct FRA to change the standard. That is FRA’s reason for existence as an agency of DOT.

Whenever the railroad industry wants to improve its productivity, its efficiency, its consistency, its safety, how does it do that? By enhancing the judgments and evaluations of human beings by providing more accurate, consistent information obtained through the application of advanced technologies.

If there’s one thing we know about human beings, it’s our evolutionarily critical factor—variation. Human performance varies among individuals; human performance varies within the individual. Variation is what keeps the species alive.

But railroads do not, and do not have the time to, operate by natural selection and natural variation. We must strive for uniformity, consistency, repeatability.

We know that “machine vision,” machine inspections using advanced technologies, are more reliable, more consistent, in detecting anomalies in equipment and track. We know that acoustical detectors provide better “insight” into the health of a bearing or a wheel than a car inspector.

If the safety of the public and the operating environment cannot be maintained to the desired level by the current methods employed, then DOT must require the application of new methods. Pretending that “elite” categories of employees making estimates based on obsolete technologies makes any difference is a pretense at addressing the problem.

The second part of this recommendation, that wayside detectors recording wheel impacts issue “alerts” at a lower level of impact force, kind of makes the point in the negative, since FRA does not require the installation or use of wheel impact detectors.

It might be helpful if DOT publicized how many derailments of CBR (crude by rail) trains that have resulted in a release of materials have occurred on track equipped with impact detectors, how many of those events on those tracks can be attributed to wheel defects, and what the new setting for the impact detectors should be, based on the available data.

It might be helpful to look at the load being carried, fracked oil. North Dakota has mandated that oil from the Bakken shale formation be stabilized to reduce its volatility before shipment. The derailment in West Virginia occurred before that regulation took effect.

Oil from the Eagle Ford formation in Texas is stabilized before transport, although almost all of that oil moves through pipelines. But BNSF operates a CBR train once a week from the western portion of the Permian Basin shale formation. To my knowledge, no catastrophic releases of Permian Basin crude have occurred. Certainly the lower frequency of train operation plays a huge role in this variation. But it might be worth investigating if this oil is stabilized prior to transport, and measure its volatility in comparison to the Bakken crude.

Thus, the transportation of increasing volumes of hazardous material by rail is where the cabinet-level department, rather than its agency, must take responsibility.

SchumenthalFinally, and unfortunately not finally but always, there’s this from them/it, the Senator(s) Schumenthal: Richard “Near-Miss Dick” Blumenthal and Charles “Hold That Pose” Schumer:

“Intolerable delay to the implementation of PTC, mandated and still legally binding for no later than Dec. 31, 2015 cannot be tolerated. Therefore I, the great and powerful Schumenthal, the one and only wizard of Oz, do hereby declare that PTC must be instituted no later than three years after the date stipulated by law—or else. Is that perfectly clear? No further delay will be tolerated. Get back to me in three years.”

Of course, in 2012, when GAO and FRA and others were suggesting that PTC could not be implemented by December 2015, the Schumenthal was silent. The Schumenthal couldn’t be bothered. There were no votes to be captured. Metro-North had not yet become the “don’t let this happen to you” railroad.

Now, because a bill is already on the floor to push the mandatory due date for PTC out to 2020, the Schumenthal sticks in its thumbs, pulls out a plum, introduces its bill reducing the proposed five-year extension to three years and says “what a good boy is we.” I don’t know who’s writing the script for the Schumenthal, but it reads like Double-Speak to me. Rollover George Orwell, tell Don Draper the news.

David Schanoes

David Schanoes is Principal of Ten90 Solutions LLC, a consulting firm he established upon retiring from MTA Metro-North Railroad in 2008. David began his railroad career in 1972 with the Chicago & North Western, as a brakeman in Chicago. He came to New York 1977, working for Conrail’s New Jersey Division. David joined Metro-North in 1985. He has spent his entire career in the operating division, working his way up from brakeman to conductor, block operator, dispatcher, supervisor of train operations, trainmaster, superintendent, and deputy chief of field operations. “Better railroading is ten percent planning plus ninety percent execution,” he says. “It’s simple math. Yet, we also know, or should know, that technology is no substitute for supervision, and supervision that doesn’t utilize technology isn’t going to do the job. That's not so simple.”

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