Another Voice: ‘Stop placing profits ahead of safety’ on railroads

In the wake of Amtrak 501’s derailment earlier this week, we are once again reminded of the importance of incorporating modern technology to drastically improve outcome and, in some cases, prevent derailment altogether. Mosier Mayor Arlene Burns submitted this Another Voice, and mayors and council members from six other Oregon and Washington cities signed it.

In a recent (Dec. 16) letter to the dditor of the Hood River News, the president of the American Association of Railroads attempted to justify the Trump administration decision to rescind a mandate for railroads to install electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes. According to the American Association of Railroads, “To rigidly concentrate on ECP brakes as a magic bullet, when testing proves them unreliable, is misleading. None other than the National Academies of Sciences opined that the safety case for ECP brakes has not been made.”

This statement obscures the facts. For the 25 million people who live in communities next to railroad tracks bearing oil trains, the roll back on implementing ECP braking technology hailed as “the greatest safety improvement in modern history” is misguided. According to an editorial in the Vancouver Colombian (Dec. 12), “In overturning the mandate for electronic brakes, the U.S. Department of Transportation relied heavily upon a review by the National Academy of Sciences that was unable to determine whether electronic brakes could conclusively be deemed safer than other braking systems. In part, that lack of a definitive answer came because the railroad industry insisted upon actual trains being wrecked as part of an experiment — a costly and unrealistic demand designed to obfuscate the issue.”

So how did we get here? The American Association of Railroads lobbied hard against ECP braking systems and ran a public relations campaign — including running ads against ECP brakes. Despite industry claims, ECP brakes are a huge safety improvement over the 19th century brake technology still in use. Joseph Boardman, the former heard of the Federal Rail Administration, has called ECP brakes “a quantum improvement in rail safety.” Here is what the Federal Rail Administration had to say about ECP brakes and the Mosier derailment based upon its modeling:

“During the derailment, a coupler struck one tank car, mechanically puncturing it. This puncture allowed crude oil to meet an ignition source, leading to a fire that burned for approximately 14 hours. Four cars were eventually involved in the fire. The four tank cars involved in the fire were the punctured car, and three additional tank cars — two that had their bottom outlet valves sheared off in the derailment, and one car with the gasket melted out from under the manway cover.

“As has been the case with previous instances of modeling, the Federal Rail Administration simulation found that applying the brakes uniformly and instantaneously would have provided additional train control, potentially shortening the stopping distance, and leading to a less severe derailment. In this specific model, the simulation found that if (the train that derailed in Mosier) had been equipped with ECP brakes, two fewer tank cars may have derailed and one less tank car may have been punctured.”

The facts are clear: one tank car was punctured in the Mosier derailment and it was the ignition source of the fire. Federal Rail Administration modeling also clearly shows that ECP brakes could have prevented the Mosier oil train fire and possibly many of the other oil train derailments, fires and explosions since 2013. Getting rid of the requirement that oil trains have ECP brakes is a clear case of the powerful railroad lobby and the Trump administration sacrificing the safety of local communities in favor of corporate profit.

For both passenger and hazardous cargo trains, modern technology such as positive train control and ECP brakes should be fundamental upgrades to protect passengers, surrounding communities and fragile ecosystems from the aftermath of accidents, which could be prevented. The railroad industry and Trump administration should stop placing profits ahead of safety.

Ted Wheeler, Mayor of Portland

Ben Stuckart, Spokane Council president

Mark Gamba, Mayor of Milwaukie

Ryan Mello, Tacoma Council Member

Arlene Burns, Mayor of Mosier

Bart Hansen, Vancouver Council Member

Peter Cornelison, Hood River Council Member

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