Binz Withdraws From Consideration For FERC Chairmanship

November 2013, Vol. 68 No. 11

Efforts by U.S. freight railroads to install a wireless safety system mandated by a 2008 law are being slowed down by federal regulatory agencies. Leaders of two House committees sent a letter in August to Mignon Clyburn, acting chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), urging her to ease environmental review requirements for antennas railroads need to install as part of new positive train control (PTC) systems mandated by the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act (RSIA).

That letter followed by a few months testimony by Edward Hamberger, president and chief executive officer of the Association of American Railroads (AAR), to the Senate Commerce Committee. Hamberger said the FCC's current approval process is unworkable for a deployment on the scale of the PTC in the timeframe mandated by the RSIA and the Federal Railroad Administration's rules. "Until the FCC develops a workable procedure, installation of the PTC antennas is at a standstill," says Julia Wise, a spokeswoman for the AAR.

Railroad safety is a big issue for the oil industry given the uptick in oil carried by rail from the Bakken fields in North Dakota to places like California, and the possibility that tar sands from Alberta could move on railroads instead of in pipelines, especially if the Obama administration blocks approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. There already have been some horrific train accidents, including one this past July where an unattended train with 72 tank cars hauling crude from Bakken rolled downhill into a town in Quebec, just north of the Maine border, and ignited an inferno that destroyed half of downtown. In its aftermath, the Federal Railroad Administration issued an emergency order that requires new safety procedures for hauling crude. And the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said it may demand more puncture-resistant tank cars.

PTC systems are comprised of digital data link communications networks, continuous and accurate positioning systems such as Nationwide Differential Global Positioning System (NDGPS), on-board computers with digitized maps on locomotives and maintenance-of-way equipment, in-cab displays, throttle-brake interfaces on locomotives, wayside interface units at switches and wayside detectors, and control center computers and displays. The remote intervention capability of PTC will permit the control center to stop a train should the locomotive crew be incapacitated.