Had the railroads met the original deadline for PTC, we might not be debating merits of three other proposed rail safety regulations now stalled by Presidential Executive Order.
Railroad management and rail labor stand diametrically opposed on three proposed regulations: 1) ECP (electronically controlled pneumatic brake systems; 2) Minimum train operating crew size; and 3) Medical oversight of safety-sensitive railroad workers who may have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). The Federal Railroad Administration published all three when a Democrat was President. All of them are presently stopped in their tracks under a Republican President.
President Trump has justified an Executive Order on the basis that over-regulation stifles industry and depresses the American economy. A compelling argument, one that most Americans would find acceptable.
But what about those communities and people that may be harmed by a derailment involving an oil train? ECP is a fully developed technology that can stop these trains more effectively and efficiently by reducing in-train forces that cause tank cars to derail, particularly on non-tangent track. The other two have a more direct relationship to safety risks that PTC is intended to overcome. Railroad management arguments against mandating two-man crews would, obviously, be much stronger if fully-functional PTC systems were acting as that second set of eyes on the head end of freight and passenger trains.
And then there is the joint Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)/FRA proposed rule on diagnostics and treatment for commercial motor vehicle operators and train operating crews who may be unfit for duty, due to having OSA. This insidious but highly treatable medical condition has claimed far too many lives, some recently in commuter train derailments in the New York Metropolitan Area.
It is a matter of record that rail labor, truck drivers and transportation executives have long railed against regulations on OSA for their own reasons and interests. It is also a fact that the regulators have been slow to move forward with rules to address equipment operators who may be OSA affected. The FMCSA Medical Review Board (MRB) twice attempted to put forward guidance on OSA, but those actions failed. Finally, in 2016, FRA joined FMCSA in a joint proposed rulemaking on OSA. Progress, albeit slow.
How does this all fit together? While railroads successfully lobbied Congress and gained an extension of the PTC deadline until at least Dec. 31, 2018, the attendant safety risks do not go away. So, what should be done, in the interim, to protect rail workers and the public from human performance lapses that result in train collisions and derailments?
Having operated trains for many years, I know the value of having that second set of eyes on the head end. Even though I was medically fit, I nodded off more than once on trains I was operating at 50-60 mph. Thank you, conductor, for waking me up. And, having been personally involved in rail industry efforts to address fatigue and medical conditions that effect train crew performance for more than 30 years, I know the insidious nature of OSA and its debilitating effects on train crew performance.
As a transportation safety advocate that knows a thing or two about transportation operations and safety risks, I urge railroad management and labor to move forward with initiatives that effectively address the safety risks associated with untreated OSA, with or without a regulation. The battle over train crew size will likely continue, with or without a regulation. The debate over ECP brakes will rise or fall on the number and nature of train derailments that might have been prevented had the involved trains been equipped with ECP.
Regulators are finally attempting to do something about these safety risks. Let’s not impede progress with arbitrary barriers to the regulatory process.