Putting The Brakes On: Transportation Department Rolls Back Oil Train Regulation

The U.S. Department of Transportation has removed a regulation meant to force trains carrying crude oil or other flammable liquids to adopt electronic braking technology by 2020. Electronically Controlled Pneumatic brakes — or ECP brakes — are meant to stop train cars and keep them from slamming into each other when a train derails.

Illinois is both a train hub and an oil train hub, and the regulatory change will have several effects in the state.

One is cost savings to the railroad industry. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, “the expected costs of requiring ECP brakes would be significantly higher than the expected benefits of the requirement.”

It would cost the industry between $375 and $554 million to install the braking systems in the next four to five years, hundreds of millions more than it would save in damages, according to the department. That’s an update from when this was first calculated under the Obama administration, which found that the benefits may outweigh costs. The change can partially be explained by reduced oil train traffic in general due to pipelines and lower oil prices between 2015 and 2017. Fewer trains means fewer potential accidents and damages.

The other effect to consider is what those damages mean: oil trains potentially derailing and leaking oil into the environment or causing hazardous explosions. Groups like the Sierra Club believe those should matter more in this cost-benefit analysis.

“To me [the recent Department of Transportation analysis] seems like it’s baseline not looking at what we really value, which is the health and safety of our communities, our waterways and our environments,” said Cathy Collentine, Associate Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign.

Illinois has seen a few significant oil train derailments, including one in Galena in 2015. The Galena incident happened in an area near where a tributary entered the Mississippi River. In that case, a wheel rim broke, 21 cars from the BNSF oil train derailed, seven tanker cars ruptured and five caught fire. It took three days to put the fire out.

Luckily there was no evidence the oil made its way into the water. Still, 110,543 gallons of crude oil were released, nine residents were evacuated and lawmakers called for changes to make oil trains safer.

While Federal Railroad Administration simulations initially showed electronic braking systems led to a significant decrease in damage from train derailments, more recent calculations and field tests put that into question.

Photo: ROY LUCK (CC BY 2.0)