Skip to main content

by Walter Brasch

It’s 3 p.m., and you’re cruising down a rural road, doing about 50.

A quarter mile away is a sign, with flashing yellow lights, alerting you to slow down to 15. It’s a school zone.

But, you don’t see any children. Besides, you’re going to be late to your racquetball match. So, you just slide on past.

You’re an independent long-haul trucker. You get paid by the number of miles you drive. If you work just a couple of hours longer every day than the limits set by the federal government—and if you can drive 75 or 80 instead of 65, you can earn more income. You have your uppers and energy drinks, so you believe you should be able to work a couple of hours a day more than the regulations, and drive faster than established speed limits.

Now, let’s pretend you’re the CEO of a railroad. Your trains have been hauling 100 tanker cars of crude oil from North Dakota to refineries in Philadelphia and the Gulf Coast. That’s 100 tankers on each train. A mile long.

About 90 percent of the 106,000 tanker cars currently in service were built before 2011 when stricter regulations mandated a new design. The older cars are susceptible to leaks, explosions, and fires in derailments. But, because of intense lobbying by the railroads, they are still carrying oil.

Railroad derailments in the United States last year accounted for more than one million gallons of spilled oil, more than all spills in the 40 years since the federal government began collecting data. The oil pollutes the ground and streams; the fires and explosions pollute the air.

Most of the derailments threatened public safety and led to evacuation of residential areas. One derailment led to the deaths of 47 persons, the destruction of a business district, and an estimated $2 billion for long-term pollution clean-up and rebuilding of homes and businesses. Three derailments, including one in a residential area of Philadelphia, occurred this past year in Pennsylvania.

The derailment and explosions of “bomb trains” became so severe that in May the Department of Transportation declared the movement by trains of crude oil from North Dakota derived by the process known as fracking posed an “imminent hazard.”
The federal government wants to reduce the speed limit for those trains carrying highly toxic and explosive crude oil.

If you’re Hunter Harrison, CEO of Canadian Pacific (CP), you say you “don’t know of any incidents with crude that’s being caused by speed,” and then tell your investors, “We don’t get better with speed [reduction]. We get worse.”

If you’re Charles Moorman, CEO of Norfolk Southern, you agree completely with your colleague from CN, and say that a higher speed limit is safe.

If you’re Michael Ward, CEO of freight giant CSX, you say that lower speed limits “severely limit our ability to provide reliable freight service to our customers.”

You and your fellow CEOs have even had one dozen meetings with White House officials to explain why slower speeds are not in the nation’s best interest. You explain that your railroad should be allowed to determine the best speed for your trains.

Driving a car through a school zone, you don’t have the right to determine your best speed.

Driving a truck on interstate highways, you don’t have the right to determine your maximum speed.

But, if you’re a multi-billion dollar railroad industry, you think you have the right to set the rules.

[Dr. Brasch is a former newspaper and magazine writer and editor. He is the author of 20 books, most fusing historical and contemporary social issues. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster. Justin Mikulka and Steve Horn of DeSmogBlog assisted.]

EMAIL TO A FRIEND X
Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags

?

More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  They're allowed to make their case (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Odysseus, 6412093

    - the railways are not systematically ignoring the set speed limits. They are arguing the case for different speed limits based on the actual influence of speed on safety.

    Of course it is possible to disagree with their conclusions. But presenting what they are doing as in some way illegal is dishonest.

    And if you want to disagree, you probably should show that there was, in fact, some influence of operational speed on the accidents concerned.

    This is not a sig-line.

    by Joffan on Thu Aug 21, 2014 at 08:33:03 AM PDT

  •  I'm curious about differences between rail and (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Roadbed Guy, jwinIL14

    street traffic.

    There's an old joke about driving drunk:

    "Oh man, I'm not sure I should be driving. Better drive real, real fast so I can get home and off the roads."

    It's a joke, but going slower does mean being on the road longer, so...question:

    Do trains work just like cars in that regard, or is there some "sweet spot" below which the fact of being out there moving for a longer time increases the risk?

    LG: You know what? You got spunk. MR: Well, Yes... LG: I hate spunk!

    by dinotrac on Thu Aug 21, 2014 at 08:58:12 AM PDT

    •  It would be good to have actual data (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      jwinIL14, dinotrac, JeffW

      on how often excessive speed was actually involved

      For example, the most devastating accident, the one in Quebec, was because a train was left unattended at the top of hill w/o the brakes properly set.

      There is another incident that I am aware of in Alberta where the track was actually "broken" (I'm sure that's not the technical term, but hopefully it gets the idea across) so a derailment was inevitably no matter what the speed of the train was (and IIRC, there was a similar incident in the US Great Plains within the past year).

      To me it seems like having competent crews and adequate track maintenance are what is really critical.

    •  One thing is for sure, the faster a train's speed (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      dinotrac, ozsea1

      the longer it takes to stop. Even if all is mechanically perfect, at full emergency braking it can takes miles depending on the grade, number of cars, and the MPH.

      We are all made of star stuff, so please be kind to dust bunnies.

      by jwinIL14 on Thu Aug 21, 2014 at 09:28:12 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Sure, but if the problem is 1/4 mile ahead (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        dinotrac, jwinIL14

        does it make * that * much difference if the train is traveling at 65 mph or 90?  Not going to stop in either case.  

        With the point being something about "an ounce of prevention is better than . .. " (but I forget exactly how that saying ends up, but hopefully my point makes sense irregardless).

        •  I'll give you that for sure. (see my reply above) (0+ / 0-)

          We are all made of star stuff, so please be kind to dust bunnies.

          by jwinIL14 on Thu Aug 21, 2014 at 10:06:07 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  yes, it does (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          JeffW

          potential kinetic energy (i.e. how "hard' the bombtrain hits the object) goes up as the square of the increase in speed.

          But, you knew that, right?

          "As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce." - Adam Smith: The Wealth of Nations

          by ozsea1 on Thu Aug 21, 2014 at 10:08:30 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Pretty sure that a mile long train going (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            JeffW

            at 65 mph is NOT going to stop in 1/4 mile.

            No matter even if the wheels totally locked up during braking, rendering them totally flat-sided. . . .  Or even if they got General Motors to install those anti-lock brakes.

            Sure, if the train was going 15 mph, then it might have a fighting chance at stopping in time.   But with the Chinese routinely driving their trains at 10x that velocity, it would be down-right embarrassing if we had to resort to that type of thing here in the USA

            •  "stopping in time" (0+ / 0-)

              ain't gonna happen, even if the train is going 65 mph.

              But the difference in striking force between 65 and 90 mph is substantial.

              Sorry if I didn't make that clear.

              "As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce." - Adam Smith: The Wealth of Nations

              by ozsea1 on Thu Aug 21, 2014 at 10:44:52 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

          •  You said: (0+ / 0-)
            potential kinetic energy (i.e. how "hard' the bombtrain hits the object) goes up as the square of the increase in speed.
            There isn't any such thing is "potential" kinetic energy.   There is gravitational potential energy, but there is no "potential kinetic energy" as a property of mass at a certain velocity.

            Kinetic energy depends on the square of the absolute magnitude of the velocity of a mass and not on "square of the increase in speed."

            K.E. = 1/2*M*V*V

  •  Of course, that "bomb train" that (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Joffan

    blew up that Quebec town was being driven at exactly zero miles per hours when the troubles began.

    How much slower can you get than that?

  •  Well, in theory (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LakeSuperior, Joffan

    If a train is going slower and it details, then the tanker cars will not bang into each other as hard when they tip over and fewer of them will bust open.

    However, I am compelled to argue that having more oil pipelines would reduce the frequency of oil train derailments.

    Pipelines have their own problems, of course.

    But we saw at least 5 bomb train or similar diaries in the last three days without much mention of pipelines as a safer alternative.

    Of course, we would be much safer if we vastly reduced using oil products.  But with 254 million motor vehicles currently operating in the US, even more stringent mileage standards aren't going to get us out of the oil bidness soon.

    “The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” ― Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

    by 6412093 on Thu Aug 21, 2014 at 09:50:43 AM PDT

    •  And of these, about 0.1% are electric . .. . (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      6412093
      Of course, we would be much safer if we vastly reduced using oil products.  But with 254 million motor vehicles currently operating in the US,
      seems like a good business opportunity for any budding entrepreneur out there to grow that percentage to something meaningful!
      •  And a darned good thing, Roadbed guy, (0+ / 0-)

        to subsidize.

        “The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” ― Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

        by 6412093 on Thu Aug 21, 2014 at 09:23:48 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  My town has a dangerous rail curve in our downtown (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Roadbed Guy, JeffW

    requiring reducing train speed to 10 mph down from the present 40 mph.  Just one driver forgetting or under estimating the curve could destroy our entire downtown and everyone within a mile of the crash scene.  Thats me.  I am very concerned about the "Bomb Trains".  Transporting volatile crude oil in "soda can" type cars,that are already determined unsafe, is incredibly dangerous. It is not just our town but the millions of people and thousands of towns and cities along the train routes that are at risk.  Sure railroads want to do it as fast and as economical as possible but peoples lives and homes are at risk.The transporting of explosive crude oil needs to be properly regulated with the public's safety being the first consideration.

  •  If railroads want to set speeds for their trains (0+ / 0-)

    They first need to hire independent engineering companies to inspect every inch of the track, documenting with photos and video their findings.  Every last discrepancy must be corrected at the railroad's expense, and adequate insurance must be in place and up to date to pay for ALL damages in the event of an accident.
    If railroad CEOs agree to those conditions, I will listen to their recommendations for speed limits.  Until then, the Federal Transportation Department should set and enforce speed limits on our rail lines.  
    I don't trust a railroad as far as I can throw a steam locomotive.

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site