Thursday, February 19, 2015

Better rail safety? Buck stops with the Senate

Written by  Frank N. Wilner, Contributing Editor
Better rail safety? Buck stops with the Senate
Railroads live at the intersection of necessity and disaster—the disaster substantial when dangerous cargo goes boom, is accompanied by a highly visible fireball, or threatens human life through inhalation or skin absorption.

As there is no denying the skull-and-crossbones categorization of some cargo, there is no ignoring the necessity of it to an improved quality of modern life.

Breathe chlorine gas and you’re dead. Ban its transport and we lay waste to efficient and affordable textile manufacturing, purified drinking water, bacteria-free swimming pools, waste-water treatment, PVC pipe for plumbing, and even manufacture of shampoo, table salt, and chocolate.

Equally dangerous is anhydrous ammonia for commercial fertilizer. Embargo its transport and we suffer dramatically reduced crop yields and unaffordable farm produce.

And so it is with highly flammable domestic crude oil, which can go boom and create dramatic video. Prohibit its transport and we trade American oil independence for $5 or more per gallon gasoline and problematic reliance on imports from politically unstable and unfriendly nations.

Managing and monitoring the intersection between necessity and disaster is no small challenge. The choices made—and who makes them—have indelible consequences.

Indeed, the Senate should be more discerning in confirming White House nominees to be the nation’s top rail safety regulator as Congress must look to that individual for calming needless public fear, guidance in writing laws, and assurance that the regulations commanded are neither unduly preferential nor unjustly prejudicial. Too much already is misunderstood about railroad transport of hazardous materials and risk.

In America today, there is a far greater chance of death from drowning and car crashes than from rail accidents. Where some 2,200 Americans drown annually, and another 32,000 are killed in highway crashes, rail accidents involving hazmat haven’t claimed a single life since 2009. Yet while we hear public outbursts to halt rail transportation of crude oil, there are no pleas to close beaches, shut down swimming pools, or outlaw automobiles.

No transportation mode matches the safety of freight railroads, on which 99.998% of the two million carloads of hazmat hauled annually arrive without incident. While a high-fatality accident involving crude oil by rail occurred in Canada in 2013, investigation determined it was the result of failing to properly set brakes on a stopped train. No applicable Canadian federal regulation then existed, but such a regulation has long been in place on U.S. railroads.

Unjustly prejudicial rail safety regulations carry an unintended consequence of shifting hazmat to less-safe trucks. Four trucks are needed to move the equivalent of a single rail tank car—trucks that share congested highways with automobile drivers who often are inexperienced, preoccupied, fatigued, predisposed to exceed speed limits, or otherwise irresponsible. Train crews are specially licensed, extensively trained, regularly tested, and monitored for rules compliance, and their trains operate over a dedicated and fixed guideway.

Of course, while every measurement of rail safety shows continuous improvement, even one train accident is unacceptable as a matter of public policy. There remains much to be accomplished.

For their part, railroads invest almost $30 billion dollars annually—some $79 million daily—on research, development of new technologies, plant and equipment upgrades, and employee training.

Government performs an oversight function through committees of Congress, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), and the National Transportation Safety Board. Dismally, politics has diminished the competence of government oversight. Given some recent lawmaker outbursts, it would seem Congress is not always accurately briefed by rail safety experts. That may be because properly credentialed rail safety experts at the FRA have become fewer.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), in a frenzy over the Canadian crude oil train disaster, proposed taking 75% of oil-hauling tank cars out of service until retrofits of stronger tank car walls could be made—estimated to take longer than two years. Given the low risk of such accidents, and that the February 2015 derailment of a crude oil train in West Virginia involved thicker-wall CPC-1232 tank cars that still ruptured, the entreaty suggested an information vacuum traceable to the FRA. Such a reckless action would shift crude oil to less-safe trucks and have a negative economic impact on the nation.

There was a time when the Federal Railroad Administrator was among the nation’s most knowledgeable rail safety experts, serving as an agency magnet for other highly credentialed experts. Consider the first four Administrators, beginning with the FRA’s creation in 1966.

Scheffer Lang earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in civil engineering from MIT, held railroad operations positions, designed the industry’s first real-time operating data system, returned to MIT as an engineering professor, and served as Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce for Transportation Research before being nominated as the first Federal Railroad Administrator.

Reg Whitman had four decades of rail operations experience before his nomination. John Ingram, with a degree in transportation economics, had operating and marketing experience and developed the “rent-a-train” concept at Illinois Central. So steeped were they in rail knowledge that both became railroad CEOs after departing the FRA. Then came Asaph Hall, with a graduate degree in engineering, a private sector professional engineering background, and years of experience as a special assistant to the Secretary of Transportation and director of the Northeast Corridor Improvement Program.

Then politics pervaded the FRA nominating process. With no transportation experience, John Sullivan was nominated by fellow Naval Academy graduate Jimmy Carter—a nomination tied to Sullivan’s having coordinated the Carter for President Campaign in Pennsylvania.

While Robert W. Blanchette had been a bankruptcy trustee for three railroads, he possessed no meaningful railroad operations or engineering experience. As FRA Administrator, he angered his rail safety inspectors by calling them “meter maids” for their role in assessing fines for safety violations.

Administrators subsequent to the first four enjoyed friendships with influential politicians and had backgrounds primarily in passenger rail promotion or highways. They were largely bereft of meaningful rail safety and operations skills. Yes, some became good administrators by being administrators, but the learning curve is long for those possessing the wrong core skills for the job of the nation’s top rail safety regulator.

As neither the White House nor Senate would countenance a Federal Reserve Board chairman or White House economics adviser lacking an appropriate set of skills, why should the nation’s chief rail safety regulator not be similarly highly credentialed?

Most recently, FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo, who departed in January, provoked criticism as having shifted the FRA’s primary focus from rail safety to high-speed rail promotion and union-member job protection through a controversial attempt to mandate minimum crew size even though no data exists to support the action as safety-based. Not surprisingly, his background is as a railroad conductor and rail union lobbyist. In the midst of this turmoil, numerous highly credentialed staff experts departed the agency—out of frustration, some said in confidence. Troublingly, their successors lack strong rail safety qualifications.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) last year called the FRA a “lawless agency … a rogue agency.” He complained that “statutory deadlines have been missed and statutory guidelines have been ignored.”

Most recently, and with no request for an oversight hearing, Congress welcomed the interim appointment of political operative Sarah Feinberg as Szabo’s temporary successor until a new nominee surfaces. The interim appointment did not require confirmation, but neither did it prohibit relevant questions being asked. Her resume is a hopscotch of high-level Democratic political assignments with no indication of a skill set appropriate to the agency’s core mission.

The FRA, now being led by Feinberg, is opposed to granting railroads the extension they requested to a prior mandate that they install Positive Train Control by Dec. 31. This is despite the Federal Communications Commission’s delay in granting necessary PTC antenna permits, and documentation from railroads that available hardware is in short supply. The House and Senate now must elbow aside the FRA and pass legislation allowing the delay. Assessing fines for delays beyond the control of railroads only adds to questions of FRA leadership competence.

pogoThe trail leads unquestionably to the Senate, with a modern history of rubber stamping White House nominees for FRA Administrator. The pronouncement of cartoonist Walt Kelly’s character Pogo is demonstrably appropriate: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

If government is to provide effective rail safety oversight, the nation’s principal rail safety regulatory agency requires a leadership possessing the requisite engineering and rail operations skills to understand, articulate, confront, and solve problems associated with rail safety.

Shef Lang, Reg Whitman, John Ingram, and Ace Hall were FRA Administrators highly conversant with the technology available in their time for safe railroad operation. Were they in office today, they would be tutoring Congress on the practicalities of achieving higher levels of rail safety and risk avoidance. They would be intimately familiar with the task of detecting internal rail flaws, assuring effective rail-surface grinding, understanding the challenge posed by the wheel/rail interface and the impact of weather extremes affecting rail, and knowing the limitations of electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes. This is the stuff of solving the most common cause of rare hazmat disasters—derailments.

Whether the Senate in the future will demand from the White House Federal Railroad Administrator nominees as capable as were Lang, Whitman, Ingram, and Hall is unknown, but worth a plea.

It may not solve what former House member Billy Tauzin (D-La.) said was the only physical danger he experienced while visiting a forward combat zone in Iraq: “It was when I got between the senators and the TV cameras.” But at least the congressional grandstanding might be more than uninformed hollow bluster. And that will go a long way toward setting appropriate priorities and further improving already commendable rail safety performance.

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