Fred Frailey discusses the U.S. Department of Transportation mandate that all crude oil trains longer than 69 cars must be equipped with electronic brakes by 2021 or they will restrict the speed of oil trains to 30 MPH at all times. The current standard braking system for railroads in North America is pneumatic, which have worked well for decades, but have inherent problems as modern trains have gotten longer and heavier. One of the biggest problems is that pneumatic brakes have a relatively long activation time — when the engineer operates the brake in the lead locomotive, it takes quite some time for that to propagate all the way through the train. This creates situations which can cause derailments as the lead cars begin to slow down, while the rest of the train is still travelling at full speed.
The preferred replacements are called electronically controlled pneumatic brakes (ECP), where instead of the brakes operating by pressure changes in the air line, the brakes would be controlled by a separate electronic circuit that would allow simultaneous brake application in all cars in the train.
It seems electronic braking has no friends in the railroad industry. I find this puzzling. Research I’ve read suggests there is both a safety and business case to be made. One explanation for the bum’s rush being given ECP comes from someone whose career was immersed in railroad technology: “The mechanical departments say the ECP brakes don’t save enough on wheels and brake shoes to justify implementation. The track departments say that ECP brakes don’t reduce rail wear enough to justify implementation. Transportation departments say that ECP brakes don’t save enough fuel to justify implementation. And improved train running times, improved train dynamics, and improved engineer performance are all soft-dollar savings which don’t count. No one ever bothers to sum up total benefits.” Silos, in other words.
So I’ll make the case for ECP. (By the way, the standards were developed two decades ago by the same AAR that now vigorously opposes their implementation.) A train equipped with electronic braking is hard-wired, allowing instant communication from airbrake handle in the locomotive to every brake valve on the cars. The principal advantages are that all brakes instantly apply and release at the same time, the air supply is continually charged, engineers can gradually release and reapply brakes, and undesired emergency braking (dynamiters, they’re called) virtually disappear. In-train forces, such as slack roll-in and roll-out, are greatly reduced, and that lessens the risk of derailment. Moreover, stopping distance is reduced 40 to 60 percent, permitting higher train speeds and higher speeds approaching restricting signals. Longer trains are possible. Longer trains run at higher speeds increase the capacity of the railroad network. Because air is always charging, braking power is inexhaustible; plus, a train can stop and instantly restart. Brakes, draft gear, wheels, and bearings require less maintenance. Existing federal regulations would allow train inspections every 5,000 miles instead of the present 1,500 or 1,000 miles.
Those are a lot of advantages. In a report commissioned by the Federal Railroad Administration in 2005, the consulting company Booz Allen Hamilton estimated the cost of full implementation of ECP at $6 billion and the measurable savings (not including added network capacity) at $650 million a year. Booz recommended that ECP conversion begin with coal trains loaded in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, then to other types of unit trains (presumably including intermodal trains), and finally the rest of the car fleet — all in a 15-year time frame. “As applied to western coal service,” its report stated, “the business case is substantial,” with a recovery of all costs within three years.
Several things are going on here. Silos are one. Nobody is looking at the big picture, just his or her little piece of it. The boys in the Mechanical Silo could care less about increased network capacity. The occupants of the Finance Silo don’t want to divert cash flow away from share buybacks, their favorite toy. Most of those in the CEO Silo didn’t come up on the operating side and are probably bored by the subject. In a conservative, mature business like railroading, risk taking and even forward thinking are not rewarded. And the cost of hard-wiring the car fleet would primarily be borne by shippers, who own most of the equipment, whereas railroads would reap the benefits. How to share the benefits with car-owning shippers leads to very difficult negotiations.