Monday, June 22, 2009

The Rockford, Illinois Derailment Incident

Today, I would like to address a topic that could only at best be considered tangential to passenger trains, but nevertheless impacts the entire railroad industry, freight AND passenger, and for that matter society as a whole.

While obviously no conclusions can be drawn until the NTSB completes their investigation and their report is released next year, it will be interesting to learn if the provision under the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 - RSIA '08 - calling for installation of Positive Train Control (PTC) on any line over which HAZMAT (HAZardous MATerial) is handled, would have avoided or minimized the Friday June 19 incident occurring at Rockford, IL (and for that matter within 500 yards of a home in which friends of mine once resided). One thing I do know is that PTC would have had no impact whatever at the June 1996 Weyauwega, WI derailment involving HAZMAT. It would appear there are now two major HAZMAT incidents occurring in the Midwest (and both involving the Canadian National whether in actuality or by succession) and for which PTC would not have done anything to prevent them.

But the fact remains that RSIA '08, which mandated that PTC be installed not only on lines over which passenger trains are operated but also where trains handling HAZMAT are operated as well, was born from when, at Chatsworth, CA this past September, a passenger train collided with a freight train resulting in fatalities. Investigations have clearly established Passenger Engineer negligence. Congress in knee jerk fashion passed legislation and with about four months left in office, President Bush signed it. While it is one thing to have a PTC system where passenger trains are operated in any volume (there is always the public trough to pay for that), it is something else to place upon the investor owned Class I rail system the burden of equipping all lines handling HAZMAT with PTC when two incidents can be cited in which no benefit from PTC would arise. Legislative bodies do have their way of the knee jerk reaction; I wonder what they will come up with as a result of Rockford (escape lanes at highway X-ings)?

Having spent eleven years of my "post-college" working life in the railroad industry, I know all too well of injustices (some of my railroad career was in Labor Relations) that can occur from speculation as to the cause of an incident prior to release of information by the NTSB or a complete investigation "on the property". Accordingly, I will not be party to any speculations that seem to have a way of moving forth on the internet, and I sincerely hope others here will hold same. However, as one can readily surmise, I am quite skeptical with regards to any benefit the Class I railroad industry will receive from installation of Positive Train Control over lines that handle HAZMAT. The two incidents noted here would not have been mitigated in any manner had PTC been active.

While the personal injury and physical damage costs of Rockford, as well as of course in the case with Weyauwega, will be severe (the uninsured portion of Weyauwega claims may have contributed to Wisconsin Central's demise, but that IS speculation on my part), but so will the costs of PTC as mandated by RSIA '08. Who will pay for the latter; all shippers (higher freight rates) or only those shipping HAZMAT. If the latter, which classes (not all of them go boom with equal ferocity)? But on the other hand, shippers will also pay the higher insurance premiums that surely will result.

In that there was a fatality involving an innocent motorist, i.e. one who was obeying all applicable traffic laws, Rockford can only be considered tragic. While steps within and without the railroad industry must be taken to avoid a reoccurrence, I'm not certain that legislating a costly train control system is an effective solution. May wise heads prevail.

1 comment:

  1. The RSIA law was aimed at Toxic Inhalation Hazard chemical. I.e., various forms of chlorine, flourine, sulfiric acid, ammonia, etc.

    Ethanol, the substance involved in the Rockford wreck is not a TIH subtance - quite the contrary! Bringing up the new law as having any bearing on this wrekc is a red herring.