Putting The Brakes On: Transportation Department Rolls Back Oil Train Regulation

By Madelyn Beck

The U.S. Department of Transportation has removed a regulation meant to force trains carrying crude oil or other flammable liquids to adopt electronic braking technology by 2020. Electronically Controlled Pneumatic brakes — or ECP brakes — are meant to stop train cars and keep them from slamming into each other when a train derails.

Illinois is both a train hub and an oil train hub, and the regulatory change will have several effects in the state.

One is cost savings to the railroad industry. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, “the expected costs of requiring ECP brakes would be significantly higher than the expected benefits of the requirement.”

It would cost the industry between $375 and $554 million to install the braking systems in the next four to five years, hundreds of millions more than it would save in damages, according to the department. That’s an update from when this was first calculated under the Obama administration, which found that the benefits may outweigh costs. The change can partially be explained by reduced oil train traffic in general due to pipelines and lower oil prices between 2015 and 2017. Fewer trains means fewer potential accidents and damages.

The other effect to consider is what those damages mean: oil trains potentially derailing and leaking oil into the environment or causing hazardous explosions. Groups like the Sierra Club believe those should matter more in this cost-benefit analysis.

“To me [the recent Department of Transportation analysis] seems like it’s baseline not looking at what we really value, which is the health and safety of our communities, our waterways and our environments,” said Cathy Collentine, Associate Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign.

Illinois has seen a few significant oil train derailments, including one in Galena in 2015. The Galena incident happened in an area near where a tributary entered the Mississippi River. In that case, a wheel rim broke, 21 cars from the BNSF oil train derailed, seven tanker cars ruptured and five caught fire. It took three days to put the fire out.

Luckily there was no evidence the oil made its way into the water. Still, 110,543 gallons of crude oil were released, nine residents were evacuated and lawmakers called for changes to make oil trains safer.  

While Federal Railroad Administration simulations initially showed electronic braking systems led to a significant decrease in damage from train derailments, more recent calculations and field tests put that into question.  

A re-analysis of ECP brakes effectiveness showed that trains with the brakes still often had fewer cars derail with fewer punctures. However, it wasn’t as big of a help as earlier simulations showed, and the amount they helped varied significantly.

That left researchers, including third-party National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, to find the ECP brakes’ effectiveness inconclusive.

As debates go, this finding is also debated. The Sierra Club finds it “deeply flawed,” saying that any benefits found in testing should be looked at as a clear reason to keep the regulation.

“When we’re looking at something that can be as potentially dangerous as a train derailment, to me any improvement over our current braking system is worth it,” Collentine said.

But Why Pull Back Now?

The transportation department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said it decided to pull back this regulation now because of a requirement in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, signed by President Barack Obama in 2015. It ordered more analysis of the ECP brakes’ effectiveness and whether they were worth the cost — which they recently found is not the case.

Part of that is because of the changes in oil traffic. When many oil train accidents happened between 2014 and 2016, oil prices, oil production and oil train traffic were all high. Then prices tanked. At the same time, more oil pipelines were built and more rail safety technology, like new types of tanker cars, went into effect.

Now, oil prices are back up. There is significantly more pipeline infrastructure than before, so fewer oil trains are needed, but those pipelines — including the Dakota Access pipeline — are already nearing or at capacity.

Rob Benedict is the senior director of transportation and infrastructure at American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, which has argued against the brake mandate in the past. He says oil trains won’t reach the levels they were a few years ago.

“I don’t think you’ll ever see the amount that you saw, that quick uptick back in the 2012 to 2014 era. And I also think that with the new tank car fleet, if there happens to be a derailment, you are going to see a considerable improvement in the performance of those tank cars,” Benedict said.

He added that many paint this regulation change in a bad light; saying it’s just another regulation rollback by the Trump administration. He disagrees.

“I see this more as a case of good governance. There was some question about the initial analysis, whether there was enough data and modeling to support the safety benefits that were claimed with ECP. There was also questions of the actual cost,” he said, noting that the Department of Transportation did find that its initial conclusions were flawed.

Benedict said AFPM is already in the middle of a major tanker car update and retrofitting to improve safety, and his organization is supportive of other types of safety regulations. Specifically, he said they support regulations that would prevent a derailment, rather than mitigate the damages if a train does derail.

“The majority of derailments are caused by either human error or track integrity,” he said, adding that any advancements in prevention “whether it be track maintenance, track oversite or efforts to train your employees can go much further as far as reducing risk than ECP braking technology.”

Benedict said he’s excited about some possible new regulations about track integrity, which the Department of Transportation could propose next year.

The Galena train derailment in 2015 would not have been stopped with a better track, and it had relatively updated train car types. At the same time, ECP brakes require that a train conductor see the accident coming and “put the brakes in emergency,” according to Benedict.

None of this guarantees there will be a reduction in human error, though, which contributes to oil train accidents like the Lac-Megantic disaster — an oil train derailment in Canada that killed 47 people in 2013.

Because of how bad some singular incidents can be, groups like the Sierra Club and people like Washington Gov. Jay Inslee argue that repealing the brake regulation was a bad move. In 2016, a train derailed at the border of Washington in Mosier, Oregon, spilling 42,000 gallons of oil, catching fire, and forcing evacuations. At the time, the Federal Railroad Administration believed ECP brakes would have mitigated the damage.

And oil traffic could go up as new pipelines meet capacity and other pipelines are delayed. In North Dakota, where most oil train traffic comes from in Illinois, there is an oil train uptick, but it’s still not even half as much as during 2014.

Canada is already shipping significantly more oil by rail into the Midwest as it faces pipeline problems. And as an increase of oil trains has done in the past, there have been an increase in accidents, like in Iowa this last summer.

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