Sunday, June 13, 2010

Reader Comment 06-12-10 PTC Security

A long time reader and frequent commentor, Fred Millar, left a comment about PTC and rail security issues appended to my recent blog on pending Federal Railroad Administration comments on the public response to the Final Rule on Positive Train Control (PTC). As is usual for Fred, his comments are lengthy but well worth reading in their entirety. Actually, I’m a little embarrassed because I never mentioned any of these issues when the Final Rule was published last January. In preparing my response to Fred’s comments I went looking for the blog post that I was sure that I had made when the document was posted in the Federal Register, but all I could find was a half-finished blog post. It seems that there were a number of other issues at the same time that had a more direct effect on the CFATS community and I never got around to completing my post. TIH Rerouted through HTUAs As Fred points out in his comment the preamble to the final rule includes an assertion by the FRA that there have been rail routing decisions for TIH chemicals that have resulted in shipments being re-routed through high-threat urban areas (HTUA) because of the TSA rail security rules. This flys in the face of the putative reason for the FRA rail routing rule; getting the bulk of these high-risk rail shipments out of HTUA. Fred points out that the PTC rules requiring the installation of expensive safety equipment on lines carrying TIH chemicals might also result in consolidating TIH shipments on mainlines through urban areas to minimize the miles of track where the equipment must be installed. The FRA did attempt to limit that by using 2008 shipment data as the baseline to determine which lines needed to be updated to PTC standards. Unfortunately, that rule, combined with the TSA rules will probably work to stop the re-routing of TIH shipments onto lines that would otherwise not require the installation of PTC equipment. Since the factors that railroads must use to make their routing decision are listed but not weighed, the subjective decision will inevitably be weighed towards cost factors. Low-Risk for Attacks Fred points out that FRA considers the risk for terrorist attack against TIH railcars is low. Statistically this can be supported by the fact that there have been no attacks to date on this transportation mode. Of course, prior to 9/11 the same could have been said about the risk of terrorists flying loaded commercial airliners into iconic buildings. Statistical analysis of yet to occur events is extremely difficult and has little predictive value. Now I do have to admit that an attack on a chlorine railcar would be a complex endeavor that would require a skilled and practiced demolition team to properly execute. Causing a catastrophic failure of the pressure vessel would be difficult in the extreme. It would certainly not be achievable by the typical wannabe terrorists that have been in the news lately in the United States. Low flow rate releases would be easier to achieve, but would be much less likely to cause wide spread deaths. That does not mean that such an attack would not achieve a terroristic affect. It just means that the dozens of deaths and hundreds of casualties would not be as much of a problem. Of course, no one says that a high-profile attack has to have a high death count. Small number of deaths can be just as effective if the attack demonstrates a vulnerability that could expose large portions of the population to similar subsequent attacks. Review of Routing Decisions Fred and I do have our differences in how an effective routing regulation should be structured, but we both agree that the current methodology is way short of an effective way to regulate the risk associated with these TIH shipments. Fred would like to see some minimum level of public participation in the route selection process. I don’t think that the added eyes on the problem would justify the decreased information security surrounding the routes. One thing is certain, the FRA has neither the staff nor the appropriate methodology to review and assess the routing decisions made by the railroads. The idea that a general FRA safety inspector could effectively review, or even spot check routing decisions is ludicrous. This is especially true since those decisions are required to take into account 27 separate factors affecting route security without any regulatory guidance as to how those factors are to be weighted or compared. In short, the three different regulations affecting the selection of routes for TIH shipments will do little to reduce the risk of terrorist attack or move the risk out of HTUA. It actually seems as if just the reverse will be the end result. More shipments going through high-risk urban areas where even an ineffective attack will result in higher casualties, more press coverage and a higher success rate for the potential attacks. No Fred, this isn’t anyway to run a railroad or a government regulatory scheme.


Fred Millar said...

For space reasons I left off the explanatory context of my earlier comment on the security-related aspects of the PTC rule. Here it is:Can citizens of any of the 62 US High Threat Urban Areas learn if your city is now protected by the 2007 federal hazmat rail security rerouting law regarding the most dangerous rail cargoes like chlorine gas? Unfortunately, no.

After the 9/11 attacks, a big public and media debate in the US about railroads' continued routing of through shipments of poison gas (TIH or PIH) rail cargoes through virtually all target cities finally led to the 2007 law. The 9/11 Commission Act, Section 1551 and the Bush Administration Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) December 26, 2008 "midnight regulation" required railroads to select the "safest and most secure routes" for the most dangerous rail (TIH, explosive, radioactive) cargoes, using 27 brand-new federally-designated "routing factors" including security, safety and economic factors.

More recently, the US FRA in its Positive Train Control (PTC) rulemaking on January 15, 2010 declared there have been "significant", even "dramatic" changes in US hazmat routing in the last several months. But FRA is keeping the changes secret, as are the railroads -- all quite legally.

Under HR 1, individual railroads make their secret routing analyses and decisions unilaterally, with secret data and methods, with no say by state and local officials, with all documentation kept secret as Sensitive Security Information, and with no mandate to proactively notify impacted major cities. An extensive recent survey of state and local hazmat and homeland security officials has revealed that none of them has been notified by the railroads, even in the East where CSX and NS notified the FRA that they had made their decisions by Sept 1, 2009. After forceful inquiries by Washington DC's Police Chief, in December CSX did assure her staff quietly by phone that no TIH cargoes currently are routed through DC on either of the two CSX lines. No information is available on any other city.
Imagine if anyone would suggest: Here's how we can ensure good safety decisions in the oil drilling industry: Let's let BP, the corporation that quietly puts us at enormous risk, make all the decisions unilaterally, with no input from state and local regulators, in complete secrecy, and with no federal oversight worth a damn. Laughable, right? But that's where we are in what some Congresspersons would call this "pre-9/11 situation" [or pre-Deepwaer Horizon situation] with the railroads and the urban routing of rail hazmat cargoes -- truck cargoes are similarly unregulated, by the way.

PJCoyle said...

For my reply to Fred Millar's comments see:

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