Buffett's BNSF helped lead fight to delay train safety technology
From an email from Dr. Fred Millar
[Editor: Millar refers here to an excellent series of articles in the Washington Post, “Deadline for train safety technology undercut by industry lobbying“, “Rail-safety deadline extension hitched to must-pass bill on transit funding” and “Senate passes transportation funding stopgap bill and rail-safety extension“. Dr. Fred Millar is a policy analyst, researcher, educator, and consultant with more than three decades of experience assessing the risks associated with transporting hazardous materials. – RS]
By Fred Millar, October 28, 2015 This week’s excellent Washington Post reports by reporters Halsey and Laris outlined US railroad lobbyists’ ability to secure a three-year delay in implementing the key railroad safety equipment demanded on the original 2015 deadline by Congress in the Rail Safety Act of 2008. There is a parallel and highly related story, so far unwritten, on how the railroads and allied interests relentlessly gain even more decisive and long-lasting ways to advantage profits over safety.
Even when Congress roused itself to demand more safety as in the 2008 RSIA, the seemingly permanent Reaganite legacy of “starving the beast” of government regulatory agencies grinds on to render the regulations pitifully weak. Now the timid and under-staffed Federal Railroad Administration is quietly piddling away the once-in-a-generation opportunity from the 2008 law to impose a significant modern safety improvement regime [already seen in many industries] on the mighty railroads.
The public and Congressional alarm at several high-profile fatal rail disasters that led to the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act prompted Congress to include a strong mandate on the Federal Railroad Administration to impose a 20th Century type of Risk Reduction Program regime on the railroads.
This surprising loss by railroad lobbyists in Congress – although they secured some weakening amendments – led to strenuous railroad efforts to prevent the FRA from crafting any strong regulations. The out-gunned FRA effectively suffered a regulatory failure of nerve, and buried the rulemaking process out of sight for four years, gaining only a weak-tea and partial consensus from railroads and rail labor in FRA’s own ad hoc Working Group of industry insiders. A couple of ill-attended public hearings drew no public attention.
The resulting proposed rule in 2015 had two major safety-weakening features: first, it gave the railroads a new secrecy pot to hide railroads’ own safety risk information from discovery in court proceedings on railroad negligence. Trial lawyers, citizens and some officials alarmed about the appalling secrecy already granted to railroads, for example in their decisions to route ultra-hazardous crude oil trains through major cities, filed comments opposing this new secrecy grant.
More importantly, FRA proposed to impose on the railroads only “a streamlined version” of a modern Risk Reduction Program regime. The comprehensive and robust one mandated by Congress would have required significant new efforts by FRA to approve and oversee railroads’ Risk Reduction Programs, and to ensure compliance. FRA staffers no doubt felt they were not up to that task, so punted the responsibilities — to each covered railroad to create its own safety regimes and to decide how to measure their own effectiveness, with no federal guidance.
As FRA then-Administrator Joseph Szabo declared shortly after the Lac-Mḗgantic Quebec crude oil train disaster killed 47 in July 2013, “The movement of this product is a game changer,” [referring to] the sharp rise in trainloads of volatile crude oil from North Dakota and other places. “We have to rethink everything we’ve done and known in the past about safety.”
Undermining the most significant Congressional rail safety mandates we may ever see is hardly the new beginning we need.