Back on February 8th, Sen. Hutchison (R, TX) introduced S 301, a bill that would make “technical and minor modifications to the positive train control requirements under chapter 201”. This bill, with its ‘minor modifications’ could have serious implications for the profitability of railroads and routing decisions Class 1 railroad make for toxic inhalation hazard chemicals.
I looked at the TIH-PTC issue in a blog posting almost two years ago for the NPRM for the PTC rule. One of the key components of the PTC rule is that Class I railroads need to install this expensive safety equipment on lines with significant TIH shipping traffic. There has been some concern expressed that TIH routings would be changed to reduce the number of track miles that would have to be equipped with PTC equipment, routing changes that would disregard other safety and security considerations.
Congress dealt with this concern in their legislation mandating PTC installation by setting the route determinations as those that were in place in 2008. If TIH cars were shipped on rail lines then, those lines would have to have PTC installed. There were provisions requiring new TIH lines added to the PTC requirement, but no provisions were made for not including 2008 TIH lines that no longer had such shipments because of safety/security rerouting decisions ‘mandated’ (suggested would probably be a better term) by TSA.
When the PTC NPRM was published the rail industry objected to the 2008 cut-off, noting that they would be required to ‘waste’ money installing PTC on lines where it wasn’t really required. The FRA response in the final rule preamble was essentially that there hands had been tied by Congress; they were the ones that set the 2008 rule.
S 301 Provisions
Sen. Hutchison’s bill would address that issue by setting December 31st, 2015 as the date which would be used to determine which lines would have to be updated to PTC standards; this is the date by which the railroads would have to have their PTC systems installed. The amount of wording changed (this is only a two page bill – which may explain why it took the GPO so long to get it posted to their web site – minor sarcasm alert) may qualify as a minor change, but the cost and safety implications are anything but minor.
Practical Effects of this Bill
The railroads certainly have financial justification for not wanting to install any more of the PTC equipment than they have to. Congress agreed with this concern by limiting the application of PTC to the most potentially dangerous stretches of the Class I railroad lines. One of the key metrics used by Congress in establishing that potential danger was the presence of TIH shipments; Congress clearly decided that PTC was not cost effective enough to be placed on all rail lines. From the political point of view, given that earlier decision, this bill makes good sense.
From the point of view of safety and security we have to remember that most major rail lines historically run through major urban areas, particularly west of the Appalachians. The reason is that cities grew up around the railroads and the major rail yards. To go around these urban areas, then, requires traveling extra miles. The added cost for installing PTC systems on those added miles will be quite high. So railroads would prefer to PTC the shorter routes.
What this means is that the routes through cities become favored routes for shipping TIH chemicals. This is exactly the opposite of what many safety and security advocates have been fighting for. Keeping TIH rail cars out of major urban areas significantly reduces the risk of accident or terrorist attack.
If we had real security routing rules for TIH chemicals this bill would be of little consequence to safety or security. The security rules would dictate the TIH routing decisions and this bill would allow railroads to save money by not installing ‘wasted’ PTC equipment on lines without significant TIH shipments.
Unfortunately, the security rule is so weak as to be only a paper drill. It is not a serious impediment to any TIH routing the railroads would make for whatever reason. In that situation the effects of this bill will be to drive more TIH shipments over the shorter mileage routes through major urban areas.