• C&S

“Civil War-era” technology? You’re joking, right?

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief

I’ve heard some pretty disingenuous (that’s a polite word for “dopey”) things said about railroads in my nearly 25 years at Railway Age. Nearly all of them have come from uninformed generalist reporters who are mostly clueless about what we do, how we do it, and the technology we employ—and that they don’t take the time to understand.

One example: The New York Post reporting a number of years ago on MTA New York City Transit’s “Robot Trains.” The Post—at best a birdcage lining that, aside from some clever headlines, barely passes for a newspaper—was reporting on CBTC (communications-based train control) on NYCT’s Canarsie L line, and the possibility of going to OPTO (one-person train operations). The Post’s KISS (keep it simple, stupid) description of advanced-technology signaling and train control was an idiotic yet almost understandable, partially forgivable gaffe. You’d expect that from The Post, which is not known for literary excellence.

But when the Federal Railroad Administrator, talking to an influential, respected media outlet, refers to railroad air brakes as a “Civil War-era braking system,” I’m thoroughly flabbergasted. Good grief, Sarah Feinberg, what were you thinking? How did you come up with that gem? Did someone on your staff fill your head with this nonsense? If that’s what happened, the person responsible should be shown the door, post-haste.

Here’s what Feinberg said, in an exchange with Kate Davidson, a reporter at KOPB, a public television/radio/online media outlet in Oregon, about the derailment of a Union Pacific crude oil train in Mosier, Ore., on June 3. She was asked whether ECP (electronically controlled pneumatic) brakes would have made a difference:

Davidson: [T]his train had conventional air brakes. Can you describe how the situation might have been different if the train had electronically controlled brakes?

Feinberg: This is really one of the most important findings related to this derailment. There are a couple different kinds of braking systems that can be used on trains. The braking system that Union Pacific is using is an air brake system. It’s basically a Civil War-era braking system. What the federal government has recommended, and basically has said, these oil trains have to have within a couple years, is an electronically controlled braking system. An air brake system requires the message of the brake to go from one end of the train all the way to the other, and that can typically be a mile. So in other words, that message has to travel a mile in order for all the tank cars to throw their brakes on. With electronically controlled braking, all the tank cars get the same message at once. So basically, it’s just a much more controlled braking. It’s quicker and it gives the train much more control, tends to lead to fewer cars derailing in an incident and fewer punctures. We believe that [electronically controlled] brakes would have led to fewer cars derailing and potentially no fire.”

Holy horse manure! (I’m trying to avoid profanity here, and it ain’t easy.) It surfaced again: “If the railroad industry is looking for ways to innovate, it can start by implementing Positive Train Control as quickly as possible and upgrading the brake system technology on crude oil trains that dates back to the Civil War era,” FRA spokesman Matthew Lehner told Politico, a Washington, D.C. “insider” newsletter.

I can almost forgive Lehner. He’s just doing his job, even if it involves having to repeat some nonsensical thing his boss said, whether or not he believes it (and I hope he doesn’t). But Sarah Feinberg? How can this be possible? Pardon me if I’m wrong or being naive, but I believe that it’s Feinberg’s job as Federal Railroad Administrator to understand and correctly, accurately interpret railroad operations and technology. In other words, it’s her job to know what she’s talking about. If she doesn’t, or isn’t sure (which is ok), she has a staff of experienced, knowledgeable (I assume) people to assist her—with the exception, of course, of anyone who may have advised her that today’s air brakes are Civil War-era equipment.

Let’s get a few things straight:

• ECP technology is nothing new. It’s merely a different method—an electronic method—of transmitting the brake activation signal from the locomotive to each railcar. ECP uses a hard-wired electronic train line to do that, instead of the train’s brake pipe. But, it still uses air brakes, with air reservoirs and valves and brake cylinders and brake beams and brake shoes. It still needs a brake pipe.

• ECP systems and conventional pneumatic systems both have George Westinghouse to thank for inventing and patenting fail-safe air brakes. Westinghouse received his patent in 1868 (I guess that’s the origin of the Civil War-era reference). Today’s air brakes are very high-tech, as there have been major advances in technology since George Westinghouse’s days. New York Air Brake’s BCM (Brake Cylinder Maintainer) is just one of the more-recent advancements.

• The difference in time it takes for a 100-car train with an ECP system vs. a conventional system with two-way end-of-train device activation (required since 1996) and distributed power to trigger the brakes on all railcars is two seconds less for ECP. Once the brakes are applied, there is little or no difference between an ECP and a conventional system. The ECP brake system will not prevent a derailment.

Here’s what Union Pacific diplomatically had to say in response to Feinberg’s Civil War reference:

“The train involved in the Mosier accident was equipped with distributed power, which has a braking capacity nearly identical to electronically controlled brakes. We do not believe electronic brakes would have resulted in fewer railcars derailing.”

And from Association of American Railroads spokesman Ed Greenberg, also diplomatically:

“Today’s freight train braking technology continues to withstand the test of time, and there have been all sorts of advancements over the years, everything from valve enhancements to the mechanics of how the air brake system works. The fact is, freight railroads have tried the ECP brake system on for size and have determined that after years of industry research and experimenting in real-world operating environments, ECP brake technology is unreliable and has minimal safety benefits.”

The U.S. GAO (General Accountability Office) recently issued a report saying that there is no justification for mandating ECP brakes. (See our story, AAR to DOT: GAO agrees we don’t need ECP.) In response, the FRA claimed in some media that railroads actually like ECP, but oppose the cost. Again, AAR’s Greenberg:

“The freight rail industry spends billions of dollars every year on further modernizing the country’s rail system, more than $30 billion in 2015 alone, which clearly demonstrates, this industry is always prepared to spend money to further advance rail safety in this country. The fact is, freight rail safety has been improving over the past several decades, and according to FRA safety statistics, the past five years have been the safest years on record. Let’s not lose sight of the recent U.S. Government Accountability Office’s comprehensive report that validated the freight rail industry’s position that the DOT had negligible data or testing results to justify mandating of the ECP brake system.”

Understand that Ed is Canadian. From my experience, Canadians are by choice diplomatic (well, maybe not at hockey games, eh?). I, on the other hand, am from Newark, N.J., and my freakin’ Italian blood is boiling.

I can just image what our suppliers—Wabtec, New York Air Brake, Miner Enterprises, etc.—must be thinking. “Good God, we’ve been outed! Rats! To think, all these years we’ve been getting away with Civil War technology! Now we’re going to have to actually spend money on research and development and get caught up with the 21st century! How are we ever going to afford that?!”

Abraham Lincoln, who just prior to the Civil War signed the Pacific Railroad Act creating the Union Pacific, and who was a railroad attorney with the Illinois Central prior to entering politics, must be turning in his grave. And George Westinghouse? I hope he was buried face-down, because he’ll be clawing his way out of his grave in Arlington National Cemetery and making his way to DOT headquarters. Holy brake shoe decomposition, Batman!

Enough sarcasm. Truth is, the general public’s understanding of railroads is severely limited. Many people perceive us as an ancient, crumbling, unsafe relic from bygone days saddled with outdated technology. We all know that’s a myth, and we don’t need the Federal Railroad Administrator perpetuating it.

Referring to air brakes as Civil War-era technology is not only irresponsible; it’s dangerous. Yeah, you heard me right: dangerous. Say something often enough and loud enough, and people who don’t know any better will start to believe it, even if it’s completely bogus. The media will pick up on it, perpetuating the myth. Politicians will buy into it, and before long, we’ll have another unfunded mandate on our hands, siphoning off resources that we need for things like expansion projects and new equipment.

What’s next? Flanged wheels rolling on rails? Hell, that technology dates back to the 17th century. Maybe we ought to scrap it, too?























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