Monday, October 19, 2009

National Rail Plan

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) recently posted a copy of their Preliminary National Rail Plan (PNRP) to their web site. The production of this preliminary plan was required by the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA). According to the Executive Summary (pg 1) of the PNRP:
“This Preliminary Plan lays the groundwork for developing policies to improve the U.S. transportation system. Its goals are consistent with the top goals of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT): to improve safety, to foster livable communities, to increase the economic competitiveness of the United States, and to promote sustainable transportation. The important attributes of rail—safety, fuel efficiency, and environmental benefits—can meaningfully assist in achieving these goals.”
The FRA is clear that this document does not provide a great deal of detail on how that organization intends to improve rail transportation. They note that the PNRP does not provide details on the development of the National Rail Plan (NRP), but rather “it is designed to create a springboard for further discussion” (pg 2). It does note that the development of the full blown NRP can only take place with “input from the States, and freight railroads, who are expected to provide valuable information and perspectives. The end focus is on the shippers and riders who use the rail system.” It would seem to me that this ‘end focus’ can only be met with input from the ‘shippers and riders’ who will be served by the system. PNRP and Hazardous Chemicals The chemical security community will find little in the PNRP that addresses the safety or security of chemical shipments. The only direct mention of hazardous materials shipments is found on page 13 where there is a brief discussion of the Positive Train Control (PTC) system requirements. If one reads the document closer, however, the following passage (pg 9) addresses a key problem with chemical safety and security issues.
“The privately owned freight rail system, however, must generally finance improvements through current cash flow based on expectations of future demand. Corporate railroads have a responsibility to generate income for their shareholders and look for ways to maximize their return on investment. However, activities that may provide a broad public benefit may not adequately contribute to (and may even harm) efforts to increase revenue or reduce expenses.”
This is one of the key reasons that the railroads have become the key corporate proponents of mandated inherently safer technology. They realize that they alone bear the full liability risk for release of toxic inhalation hazard (TIH) chemicals that are being hauled by the railroads. Shippers, on the other hand, maintain that they use safe shipping techniques and all recent major releases of TIH chemicals have been the result of railroad worker errors. This needs to be a major discussion point in the development of a true National Rail Plan. The liability issue for TIC shipments needs to be addressed in a way that benefits both the shippers and railroads. A starting point for that discussion could be a delineation of liability responsibility along the following lines:
Railroads would be liable for releases due to railroad issues, Shippers would be liable for releases due to packaging issues, and The Federal government would be liable for releases due to terrorist attacks.
A further aid to both the railroads and shippers would be a railroad transportation liability cap similar to that found with terrorism insurance. This would make liability insurance cheaper and easier to obtain for both the railroads and shippers. TIH Routing Issues The other chemical shipping issue that is completely ignored in the PNRP is the routing of TIH shipments around major urban areas. The shipment of these chemicals through cities is both a safety and a security issue. The current PIH routing rules are totally inadequate for keeping through shipments of TIH rail shipments out of major urban areas. While some improvement of the situation can be had by requiring carriers to use alternative routing via other carrier routes, this is not always possible due to the way cities grew up around rail terminals and along rail lines. Rerouting freight rail main lines around urban areas should be a major priority for the NRP. Moving Forward The TIH shipping community in particular and the chemical shipping community in general need to insure that their voices are heard during the development of the National Rail Plan. The FRA has promised to conduct a public outreach program to bring all shareholders into the development process, but due to the critical place rail shipments of chemicals has in the chemical industry, chemical rail shippers need to be proactive in insuring that their voices are heard.

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