One need not look to the wild blue yonder to find the BNSF air force. Soon, it will be patrolling BNSF tracks from altitudes no higher than 500 feet, but not within three miles of any airport and always during daylight hours. Such are the restrictions imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in granting BNSF authority March 12 to operate lighter than 55-pound drones—unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as they are formally known. So far, BNSF—which was a pioneer in the design of Positive Train Control (PTC)—is the only railroad that has sought such FAA authority.
BNSF said it will use four versions of the drones, equipped with cameras, to inspect its track and monitor its trains. Other applications will be investigated.
An official of the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART), asking not to be identified, said SMART conductors could have claimed work associated with BNSF drone operations, but lost the opportunity when they voted down a tentative agreement with BNSF last year that focused solely on PTC. The agreement specifically mentioned drones as within the scope of work reserved for SMART-represented conductors.
That failed contract would have allowed BNSF, as part of a pilot project, to create a Master Conductor craft to monitor, for safety compliance, trains equipped with PTC. The monitoring was to be done from a fixed or mobile location rather than aboard trains. Such trains would operate locomotive-engineer-only.
Where such operations were commenced, BNSF would have fully protected affected conductors from furlough, and promoted many to the new craft of Master Conductor. The failed contract also would have assured all ground service workers represented by SMART higher pay and career income protection.
The union’s National Legislative Office led the effort to defeat the tentative agreement, telling affected conductors that members of Congress would provide a better protection package as PTC and other technologies are introduced. After the tentative agreement was voted down, one of the two congressional sponsors of the legislation was defeated at the polls. The legislation never received a committee hearing, and was declared dead-on-arrival by the Republican congressional leadership should it be reintroduced.
The union’s National Legislative Office also promised that Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo, a former SMART predecessor-union official, would bring forth a rule prohibiting railroads from reducing crew size even where PTC is in place. Szabo resigned in early 2015, the rule has yet to be published, and railroad attorneys say it likely would not stand judicial challenge as there is no data demonstrating such a rule would improve rail safety.
When remote control technology was introduced more than a decade ago, the United Transportation Union—now SMART’s Transportation Division—told members that new technology cannot be obstructed, but can be managed with innovative labor agreements. The UTU then negotiated such an agreement that reserved remote control work within yards and terminals for UTU-represented members, along with higher pay and income protection.
SMART currently has contracts in place assuring two-person crews, but those contracts are nearing expiration as they are decades old and keyed to the retirement of employees affected when the contracts were signed. Within the next decade there will be no contract protection for conductor assignments.
With those agreements in their twilight, and no federal legislation or federal rule to protect conductor work in the future, SMART has obtained from some state legislatures prohibitions on one-person crews in those states. Were the laws to become effective with the expiration of the labor protection agreements just mentioned, Congress could step in to make federal law permitting one-person crews preeminent (under provisions of the Constitution’s 10th Amendment). The reason would be to block the efficiency-scotching nature—the impediment to interstate commerce—of such checkerboard pattern state laws.
For the present, BNSF conductors, having voted down the tentative agreement that would have reserved for them work associated with drone operation, have no claim to such jobs. As they are created, those jobs will be up for grabs by the first labor union to capture them through a labor agreement. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen already has a clause in its agreements with BNSF to capture remote control work outside yards and terminals should remote control operations be expanded.
Written by David Thomas, Contributing Editor
Transport Canada's selection March 11, 2015 of new tank car specifications is surely a harbinger of the choice the White House will make later this spring from among the options proposed by U.S. rail and hazmat regulators.
The clue is in Transport Minister Lisa Raitt's revelation that Canada could not secure U.S. support for advanced braking systems for oil trains—a clear inference that agreement has been reached on the other specifications for a future TC/DOT-117 tank car.
Sticking a "TC" in front of the U.S. "DOT-117" designation makes it pretty certain that Canada has been advised that the White House has made up its mind on 9/16-inch-thick hulls, full head shields, thermal insulation, and enhanced rollover protection for top fittings. This was the option preferred by the Association of American Railroads, which naturally welcomed the Canadian decision as the benchmark for a necessarily common North American standard.
However, Canada's May 2017 deadline for getting DOT-111s out of crude oil service effectively scuttles the U.S. regulators' strategy of shuffling the oldest cars to Alberta tar sands service as new cars come on stream.
The rule package proposed by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) anticipates DOT-111s remaining in crude oil service until October 2020: ". . . some DOT(-111) Unjacketed and CPC 1232 Unjacketed cars (about 8,000 cars) will be transferred to Alberta, Canada tar sands services. No existing tank cars will be forced into early retirement."
The two recent Ontario explosions of CN unit trains hauling Alberta tar sands crude had already exposed PHMSA's incomprehensible misunderstanding of bitumen blended for transport. ("Dilbit" is bitumen diluted with naptha or other liquid petroleum gases to make it flow; "synbit" is partially refined bitumen intentionally boosted with highly explosive hydrogen gas.)
So, the White House now has to figure out what to do with the thousands of old DOT-111s that will be banned in 24 months from crude service, bitumen or otherwise, north of the 49th Parallel. Either these cars will be allowed to haul crude in the U.S. well beyond their originally proposed 2020 withdrawal, or they will, indeed, be forced into "early retirement."
Canada's transport minister offered another hint of regulatory rebellion among the political tribes ranging above America's northern frontier. Raitt said that a requirement for ECP (electronically controlled pneumatic) unit train braking will re-emerge in new rail operating rules for high-hazard trains in Canada. The rail industry in the U.S. is resisting the PHMSA recommendation for electronic brake controls, but Canada could independently require them for domestic or cross-border service.
Unlike the U.S., where the regulatory process requires months of wide-open public consultation and interminable iteration of rule proposals, Canadian rail regulation is by executive fiat, with an optional cover of voluntary consultations with handpicked industry experts. Under the country's parliamentary system, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has direct, personal power over both the elected legislature and the departments that implement law, including Raitt's Transport Canada.
Harper's government has an established record of hostility toward the country's railways and tight ties to the oil industry that provides his Conservative Party its financial and ideological power base. What other government would spend millions of taxpayer dollars on foreign newspaper advertising to promote a private pipeline scheme?
Harper's oil-dependent government is moving quickly on tank cars and railway operating rules to preserve a vital transportation option for Alberta's tar sands. Harper (and the U.S. State Department) argued that rail was an obvious alternative should the Keystone XL pipeline project ultimately be denied. Should the White House accede to the rising insistence of lesser lawmakers that crude oil be deweaponized before loading, rail will cease to be the existential lifeline for tar sands bitumen.
Fixing Bakken crude is a technically easy matter of applying the same treatment or "stabilization" that is routine for pipeline transport in North Dakota, and for any mode of transport in Texas. However, rendering Canadian bitumen safe for rail carriage is problematic. The alternative to dilution with naptha is heating with steam during loading and unloading—a messy procedure that requires internal steam coils be built into tank cars.
Neither Canada's new tank car spec nor any of those under consideration by the White House includes a requirement for steam coils. Anyway, the steam-heating alternative is impractical on a large scale, given its requirement for extra-cost tank cars constructed specifically for low-value bitumen. Options may not exist at all for synbit, the hydrogen-injected variety of processed bitumen.
Expect the Harper government to intensify the blame it directs at the railroads as it tries to deflect attention away from the explosive goop (it's certainly not natural crude) shipped from Alberta's tar sands.
The government has summoned CN to testify before a parliamentary committee about the causes of this winter's spate of tank car derailments. Track condition, train lengths, and speed will be the focus of government-side interrogators; there will be not a word from Conservative members of parliament about the tar sands industry's intentional spiking of bitumen with naptha and hydrogen.
Perhaps this is Washington's opportunity to regain credible leadership in oil train reform: If Canada can bar DOT-111s at the border, the U.S. could, and should, prohibit spiked bitumen from American rails.
(I suggest this as a patriotic Canadian and proud resident of Alberta who benefits directly from bitumen taxes and royalties. Like most Albertans, I simply don't wish to profit by placing other people and places at unnecessary risk.)
Written by Douglas John Bowen
U.S. intermodal volume for the week ending March 7, 2015 gained ground, ending a three-week slump and aiding overall U.S. freight traffic for the week, the Association of American Railroads said Wednesday, March 11.
U.S. freight carload traffic remained mired in its own slide for a third week, down 2.1% measured against the comparable week in 2014. But U.S. intermodal volume rose 4%, boosting overall U.S. freight traffic to a 0.8% gain.
Just three of the 10 U.S. carload commodity groups AAR tracks on a weekly basis posted increases compared with the same week in 2014. They were: grain, up 11.5%, farm products, up 10.1%, and chemicals, up 2.7%. By contrast, coal fell 6.5%, petroleum and petroleum products slipped 4.1%, and nonmetallic minerals fell 2.7%.
Both Canada and Mexico sported robust gains for the week ending March 7, 2015, measured against the comparable week in 2014. Canadian freight carload traffic for the week ending March 7 rose solidly, up 9.2%, while Canadian intermodal volume did even better on a percentage basis, up 14.1%. Mexican freight carload traffic also did well, up 10.8% compared with the same week a year ago, while Mexican intermodal rose 19.6%.
Combined North American freight carload traffic for the week ending Mar. 7, 2015 on 13 reporting U.S., Canadian, and Mexican railroads eked out a 0.6% gain compared with the same week last year. Combined North American intermodal volume of the three NAFTA nations rose 6.2%. Total combined weekly rail traffic in North America was up 3.2%, AAR said.
Written by Douglas John Bowen
U.S. freight rail traffic for the week ending Feb. 28, 2015 fell, dragging February's totals down with it, as U.S. freight carload traffic slipped for a second straight week, while U.S. intermodal extended a month-long slide, the Association of American Railroads reported Wednesday, March 4. AAR cited weather woes and port-related problems for much of the slide.
U.S. freight carload traffic for the week fell 7% measured against the comparable week in 2014, and ending a spurt of strength from the sector in recent weeks. U.S. intermodal volume fell again, down 6.3%. Total U.S. weekly rail traffic for the week declined 6.7% compared with the same week a year ago.
Just three of the 10 carload commodity groups tracked by the AAR on a weekly basis posted increases compared with the same week in 2014, led by petroleum and petroleum products, up 6.5%, grain, 7p 3.8%, and motor vehicles and parts, up 2%. Declining commodities included metallic ores and metals, down 13.2%, coal, down 12.4%, and nonmetallic minerals, down 10.9%.
Canadian freight carload volume for the week ending Feb. 28, by contrast, gained 8.9%, while Canadian intermodal volume also fared well, up 4% when measured against the comparable week in 2014. Mexican freight carload traffic fell 3.1%, but Mexican intermodal volume for the week rose 2.3%.
Combined North American freight carload traffic for the week ending Feb. 28, 2015 on 13 reporting U.S., Canadian, and Mexican railroads was down 3.9% compared with the same week last year. Combined North American intermodal volume fell 4.3%.
Total U.S. freight carload traffic for February sustained a 1.1% decline when measured against traffic in February 2014, while total U.S. intermodal volume for the month declined 6.5%. Total U.S. freight rail traffic for the mo th was off 3.6% from a year ago.
"The problems at West Coast ports clearly had an impact on rail traffic in February. Bad weather in the East and Midwest didn't help," said AAR Senior Vice President John T. Gray. "It's not possible to quantify the impact of these factors precisely. However, economic fundamentals remain mostly positive, so railroads are expecting significant traffic improvements in March."
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