Of Tank Cars and Muddied Waters
I'm about as eager to get involved in assessing the "meaning," assigning blame, and pointing fingers regarding the Lac-Megantic tragedy as I am eager to go back working full time for a railroad operating company.
Not that I don't have strong feelings about either, either/or, either or both. Indeed I do. But... in the latter case, there's just not enough in it for me to go back to working 14 hour days; to considering 5 hours a good night's sleep; to living and dying by the telephone.
And in the former case? There's an investigation going on. When that's completed, I might assess the meaning, assign some blame, and point a finger or two...as if anyone cares what I think. But...
But the other day, my very own copy of the Railway Age. September 2013 issue arrived. And before I could get to the good news regarding the BNSF, there were a couple of pages of bad news about shipping crude-by-rail in tank cars in the aftermath of Lac Megantic.
One of those pages was the "Watching Washington" column by Frank N. Wilner entitled "Balance a must in regulating tank car safety."
Frank was concerned by the remarks of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) for the sequestering of, as Wilner wrote, "all 40,000 DOT 111 tank cars used to haul crude oil until retrofitted to new safety standards."
Frank finds Chuck to be engaging in histrionics in making such a unfair and unbalanced demand. Frank thinks Chuck should be asking the appropriate policty question: "how great is the risk [of catastrophic release of hazardous materials during collisions and derailments] when balanced against the cost of retrofitting them before they can be used again"? Removing the fleet from service would "reduce significantly the movement of crude by rail, slow America's return to energy independence, put upward pressure on rail rates, drive more freight to less safe highways, shrink railroad profits, choke new capital investment, and create other rail safety problems," according to Frank.
Exactly who's the one engaging in histrionics and overreaction here? Schumer? Sounds to me like the histrionics are coming from Wilner
Frank points out that a fleet retrofit cannot be accomplished for years. Indeed, 70% of the tank car fleet is DOT 111 or DOT 111A, and 40,000 is about the number used for ethanol, crude oil, etc.
Full disclosure: I have no affinity, elective or elected or otherwise for Senator Schumer. The last duly elected person to either house of the US Congress that I could see myself voting for was Thaddeus Stevens, and needless to say, he ain't running.
All Frank's argument in the face of Lac-Megantic boils down to is...."how likely is this to happen again?"
That is precisely the wrong question, because the Lac-Megantic event was exactly that oh so unlikely to happen again event after the October 7, 2011 derailment in Tiskilwa, Illinois where ten DOT 111 tank cars spilled denatured alcohol which ignited and required the evacuation of the surrounding area. So it happened again.
This October 7, 2011 derailment itself was that oh so unlikely to happen again event after the February 6, 2011 incident in Arcadia, Ohio were a derailment led to DOT 111 tank cars spilling several hundred thousand gallons of ethanol. It happened again.
That February 6, 2011 incident was itself an oh so unlikely to happen again event after the June 2009 derailment of a CN freight train in Cherry Valley, Illinois, where the rupture of DOT 111 tank cars spilled ethanol that ignited with explosive force and killed a passenger in an automobile stopped at the grade crossing waiting for the train to pass. It happened again.
And that June 2009 derailment? You guessed it. That was another oh so unlikely to happen again event after the Oct 2006 derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train on a bridge at New Brighton, Pa., derailing 23 tank cars carrying ethanol, of which 20 ruptured and released material into the river below. It happened again.
The October 2006 incident was one more oh so unlikely to happen again event coming after the February 2003 derailment of DOT 111 tank cars carrying ethanol which ignited in Tamaroa, Illinois. It happened again.
What was it the Shangri-Las sang back in the day: "Get the picture?"
"Yes, we see."
So you tell me, and then I'll tell you: "how likely is this to happen again?" Here's my answer: Real likely. As a matter of fact, when it does NOT happen, it's because other factors are at work reducing the possibility-- those other factors being train control systems, track maintenance standards, employee rule compliance, good operating procedures-- but the tank cars themselves? They contribute nothing to safe train operations. The tank cars themselves are demonstrably unsafe under everyday operating conditons on railroads where derailments can occur.
It certainly will take years to retrofit the entire fleet of DOT 111 tank cars. And you know what? The industry has had years to do something about it. The NTSB in May 1991 produced a study on the hazards of shipping hazardous materials in DOT 111 tank cars. What has the industry done? Finally, in 2011, the AAR issued new standards for the design and construction of new DOT 111 tank cars. The existing fleet is not required to conform to these improved standards.
Very wise and sensible, and moderate, and fair and balanced it is to counsel, "Congress and federal regulators must avoid hasty action, subject recommendatons on DOT 111 tank car safety to thorough cost-benefit analysis, and seek balance, recognizing that risk can never be fully eliminated, but is best managed through joint consideration of national economic interest and public safety," but you know what? After 1991, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, and 2013 there is no such thing any longer as "hasty action." After all those years and all those incidents arguing for "cost-benefit analysis" sounds like nothing so much as the corporate version of "NIMBY"-- not in my backyard, because the train loads of ethanol and crude in DOT 111 tank cars don't run through my backyard... not to put too fine a point on it.
Those of us in this business know, were trained to know, that when you have an accident, an injury, a fatality, a catastrophic event-- it's not an isolated incident. We know that our failures like our successes are the result of practices, of systems, of processes. If we have a catastrophic event like a fatality, we know that the event may appear as a seemingly random event . We also know that it's not random; it is the result of the accumulation of bad practices, of poor procedures too long ignored.
It's our obligation to eliminate those bad practices, the worst of which is deceiving ourselves and others with "oh that's so unlikely to happen again."
Is it likely that the US Congress will ban the use of DOT 111 tank cars until retrofitted to the new standards? Are you kidding me? Get serious. This isn't the Congress of Thaddeus Stevens.
You don't want the Feds to act on this? Hey, I don't blame you. I never wanted the FRA telling me how to do my job. It's the industry's obligation to produce a plan, a schedule , setting a timeline for the complete upgrade of the fleet through either retrofit, new construction, retirement of the old fleet, or its restriction to non-hazardous material traffic
October 2, 2013
Safer Railroading is Better Railroading