ECP brake analysis draws few comments, and no change of heart

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Tank cars moving crude oil in West Virginia.
Chase Gunnoe
WASHINGTON — The Department of Transportation's reversed position on electronically controlled pneumatic brakes drew scant response from industry and labor groups that have battled over the technology for the past three years.

Four groups — two industry, two labor — submitted comments by the Nov. 1 deadline on a revised Regulatory Impact Analysis by the Federal Railroad Administration and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The analysis concludes that ECP brakes are not cost-beneficial in the current market, largely due to the decreased volume of crude oil being transported by rail.

In May 2015, the FRA and PHMSA had published a rule making ECP brakes mandatory for tank cars transporting flammable liquids as a way to cut down on the number of disastrous tank car train derailments and fires.

The comments show no significant change in position by either group:

The Association of American Railroads said that the Federal analysis didn't go far enough. Reports from the Government Accountability Office and the Transportation Research Board “discredited” a computer model developed by a consulting firm, AAR officials wrote, something that should be noted in the final analysis.

The FRA used the computer model for its analysis of ECB brakes. The analysis was prepared before the research board issued its report. That report concluded that the advantages of ECP brakes over conventional air brakes were “inconclusive.”

According to the North American Freight Car Association, the ECP brake rule should be rescinded because the government overestimates the number of carloads of crude and ethanol that railroads would carry between now and 2030.

The freight car group confirms its belief that a safe and efficient national rail system depends on a combination of safe equipment, safe rights-of-way, and safe operating practices. Achieving safety goals “consist of a balanced combination of standards governing all of these factors, with all industry stakeholders bearing their appropriate level of responsibility.”

“Engineers we represent are professionals who know how to operate trains equipped with both conventional and ECP braking systems,” according to a letter from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “It is because of the knowledge of our craft that we understand ECP braking represents a step forward in braking technology. We support it and ask that the final rule be retained.”

The International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers — Transportation Division noted that the FRA's study only looked at ECP brakes in emergency applications rather than overall train operations.

While improvements have been made to conventional air brakes over the past 140 years, “the only dramatic advancement to improve a freight train’s braking ability and safety is from ECP brakes.”

The FRA and PHMSA have until Dec. 4 to finish the analysis and submit it to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. That's the deadline Congress gave the transportation department to determine whether or not the rule should be rescinded. While the secretary can't drop the rule with a stroke of her pen, it sets the formal process into motion.
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