AFPM ’23: US freight-rail reform could follow train safety bills
SAN ANTONIO (ICIS)–There is a good chance that the focus on rail safety in the US that followed a train derailment could lead to proposals that would improve freight-rail competition and service, issues that have long been a focus of the chemical industry, an executive with a trade group said on Sunday.
The two issues have some overlap, so proposals that address freight-rail competition could make trains safer, said Rob Benedict, vice president of petrochemicals and midstream for American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM).
He made his comments on the sidelines of the AFPM’s International Petrochemical Conference (IPC).
US legislators are already making proposals and introducing bills in response to the Norfolk Southern train derailment in Ohio on 3 February.
However, the rail service has been a policy focus long before the derailment.
Democratic legislators introduced a bill addressing freight rail competition when they still held a majority in the House of Representatives.
That bill stalled because it lacked bipartisan support, Benedict said.
In 2022, US Senator Tammy Baldwin (Democrat-Wisconsin) introduced a freight-rail service bill that provided more clarity about common-carrier qualifications, Benedict said.
Following the Norfolk Southern derailment, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Railway Safety Act of 2023.
RAIL REFORM AND RAIL
The provisions in the act do not address rail competition, but the AFPM expect the focus on rail safety will shine a light on rail competition and service, Benedict said. A key pillar of the AFPM is more rail competition can make trains safer.
In particular, a common thread is emerging between railroad safety and precision scheduled railroading (PSR), a strategy adopted by companies to increase efficiency and lower costs.
The practice has attracted the ire of the chemical industry, which alleges that railroad companies have sacrificed service and performance in their attempts to eliminate costs. It resulted in longer trains as well as fewer staff and locomotives.
The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report in December 2022 about PSR and whether the practice compromised railroad safety.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is now looking at PSR as it relates to rail safety, Benedict said.
DANGERS OF BAD RAIL
For now, the AFPM is focused on ensuring that the legislators and regulators do not rush to adopt policies before agencies to complete their full investigation of the accident.
The danger is that the proposals could lead to policies that do little to improve safety while making it more difficult to ship goods.
Some legislators want the US to speed up the timeline that requires companies to introduce more resilient tank cars either through retrofits or replacements, Benedict said.
This timeline was introduced after the 2013 derailment of the crude-carrying train at Lac-Magantic, Quebec province in Canada.
The enhanced specifications applied to tankers carrying high-hazard flammable materials.
Benedict said more than 100,000 tankers that carry such products as crude oil and ethanol now meet the specifications.
However, 20,000-30,000 tankers still need to be retrofitted and replaced, and these carry jet fuel, xylenes and other fuels, Benedict said.
The danger is that the shorter deadline could overwhelm the shops that retrofit and build the tankers, Benedict said. These shops are contending with labour shortages and supply-chain snags like the rest of the economy.
The shorter deadlines could overwhelm these shops, and companies would have to find another way to ship critical fuels and materials, Benedict said.
The consequences could be delays, higher costs and less safety.
Another danger is making more chemicals qualify as high-hazard flammable materials.
Benedict said such an expansion needs to be risk-based.
A similar concern is that regulators could require railroad companies to notify firefighters and other first responders about an expanded list of chemicals that would be deemed to be high-hazard flammable materials.
First responders could become overwhelmed by the notifications and develop the habit of ignoring them.
POLICYMAKERS SUGGEST SOME REASONABLE
Some proposals are taking cues from the findings of a preliminary report of the accident, which found that a wheel bearing on one of the cars overheated and failed moments before the derailment.
That indicates that more heat detectors – called wayside hotbox detectors – could have prevented the accident, Benedict said.
Right now, no federal regulations prescribe how far these hotboxes should be from one another on a railroad track, Benedict said. The regulations lack clarity about how crews should respond to an alarm from a detector.
The early findings also indicate that if pressure-relief valves are added to tank cars, they may make derailments less likely, Benedict said. The proposal would be relatively easy to implement.
In the US, chemical railcar loadings represent about 20% of chemical transportation by tonnage, with trucks, barges and pipelines carrying the rest.
The AFP IPC runs through Tuesday.
Interview article by Al Greenwood
Thumbnail shows a railroad track. Image by Shutterstock.
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