By Glenn Fleishman
September 25, 2018

Trains that carry oil and other flammable material won’t have to install electronically controlled brakes that reduce the risk of train derailments and explosions after the reversal by Trump officials of an Obama-era safety rule.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) posted the rule change today at its Web site, arguing that the cost of installing these more sophisticated brakes outweighs the benefit. The reversal was first proposed in December 2017, around the time of a deadly Amtrak derailment in Washington State, and finalized today. The improved brakes had a 2021 deadline for installation until the industry-supported change.

About 20 derailments of trains carrying oil and ethanol that have led to spills, fires, and, in some cases, evacuations have occurred since 2010 in the U.S. and Canada. Riverkeeper, a clean-water advocacy group, compiled video reports from many of the accidents.

U.S. trains rely on pneumatic braking technology first invented in the 1860s, in which continuous air pressure linked from the front of the train keeps a brake from engaging on wheels on each car. When an engineer applies braking, it can take several seconds for pneumatic pressure to drop to the end of a 100-car train, and trains can be longer.

Electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes still use air pressure, but each car has an individual braking control which receives an electronic signal simultaneously, reducing the danger of derailment when cars slam into the preceding ones before braking themselves.

The seconds’ difference between regular and ECP brakes is where the battle lies for this regulations. The railroad industry claims it would cost more than $3 billion to install necessary ECP on trains used for flammable liquids, while the Federal Railroad Administration under President Barack Obama said it would be about half a billion.

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