Monday, September 5, 2011

Implications of FRA PTC Revisions – Rerouting Decisions

Last month I briefly described the latest notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) published by Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) concerning changes to the way the FRA intends to administer the Congressionally mandated positive train control system (PTC). This post, the second in a series of posts, will look at the potential effects on TIH routing decisions that will be made by individual railroads. The other post in this series was:

Rail Routing Rules

Before the PTC regulations went into force the FRA and the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) put safety and security rules into force that required railroads to make formal routing decisions for, among other highly hazardous materials, TIH chemicals. Those rules required that the analysis would take into account twenty-seven separate factors, one of which was cost. The rule does not specify the weighting to be given to each of those separate factors.

It has been clear from the start of the PTC rulemaking process, and even going back to the Congressional discussions that lead-up to the mandate for the rule, that the installation of PTC systems was going to increase the operating and capital costs of railroads. A number of commenters, myself included, questioned if those increased costs would be used to justify the movement of TIH routes back along urban area rail lines that would be required to have PTC systems even without the TIH chemicals or already carried TIH traffic.

One of the mitigating factors in the current PTC rules that makes this transfer of risk more difficult is found at §236.1020. That section outlines the so called ‘alternative route analysis test’ that requires justifying the routing change by showing that the new line presents no higher overall safety and security risk as the old line, assuming that both carried the TIH shipments. This reinforces the current TIH-routing safety and security rules.

Weakening Routing Rules

This NPRM would remove §236.1020; making the simple removal of TIH traffic from a line not otherwise required to have PTC systems installed the sole requirement for removing that line segment from the PTC requirement.

Since the current TIH routing rules do not require railroads to get their routing decisions approved by either FRA or PHMSA, there is no longer a requirement for any federal agency to review the routing changes that will be made to avoid installing PTC systems on line segments that would only be covered due to their TIH loadings.

The FRA estimates that this rule would affect about 10,000 miles of rail lines.

Favoring Urban Routings

This means that there will be an added incentive for railroads to switch TIH traffic to those lines that also carry passenger trains. Such co-routing would significantly decrease the number of miles that would need to be included in the PTC system, reducing the overall cost of the PTC rule.

Passenger rail lines, almost by definition, run through urban and suburban population centers. After all this is where the people live and work. This means that this proposed rule will almost certainly increase the number of urban and suburban lines that carry TIH chemicals.

The reduced speed limits for these lines will certainly limit the number accidents that will result in the release of TIH chemicals, especially catastrophic releases. Unfortunately, the same risk reduction cannot be applied to the potential for attacks on these railcars. These cars are difficult to attack because of their robust design, but they do become more likely targets as they traverse populated areas, particularly major urban areas. The increased target value will also ensure the increased likelihood that professional terrorists, with the skills and tools necessary to successfully attack these harden targets, will be involved in their attack.

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