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April 2007

Rail News: Mechanical

Context by Pat Foran (April 2007)


Now that two U.S. railroads finally have the green light to test (let’s say “implement”) electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes, it’s easier to envision ECP in a broader technological context — in combination with positive train control, for example — and with the corresponding safety and business benefits (in particular, a capacity boost) that could result from widespread implementation. Not that that’ll happen anytime soon. The implementation challenge, as Booz Allen Hamilton concluded in its 2006 costs/benefits study, is threefold. ECP stakeholders must figure out:

  • How to equitably distribute the ECP brake benefits and conversion costs that fall unevenly between the railroads and private-car owners.
  • How to focus ECP brake conversion on the particular types of trains and corridors that would most benefit from the technology without disrupting capacity-constrained rail-freight operations.
  • How to manage the operating mix of ECP brake and non-ECP brake cars and locomotives during what’s going to be a lengthy conversion process.

As Booz Allen put it in the study’s executive summary: “The expected benefits of ECP braking technology appear to justify the investment, provided that the conversion is focused first on the high-mileage, unit-train-type services that would most benefit from its use, and subsequent conversions incorporate lessons learned.”

It won’t be easy to address the aforementioned bullet points. It’ll be interesting to see the extent to which ECP stakeholders incorporate said “lessons” along the way. But considering where we’ve been (haven’t been) on the ECP front for most of this decade, a little implementation action could go a long way toward keeping the stakeholders thinking collectively. At least for a while.

Number-crunching on the capacity front
That railroads continue to budget more for maintenance-of-way projects, as our 6th annual MOW survey indicates (see cover story), suggests something about the relative health of the North American rail realm. But “relative” is very much the operative word here, particularly for the short-line and regional set. Although 17 of the 25 short-line and regional roads that responded to our survey plan to spend more MOW dollars this year than they doled out in 2006, it’s partly because they’re incurring higher material costs. And regardless of whether rail traffic has slowed, the need to invest in infrastructure capacity is as critical as it’s ever been.

American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) officials have been doing their part to keep the capacity question front and center — from sponsoring the annual “Railroad Day on the Hill” (this year’s was held March 14) to offering capacity-related sessions at ASLRRA’s upcoming annual conference in Baltimore (April 22-24).

If you’re a railroader, supplier, consultant, lender or otherwise itinerant observer who’s planning on attending ASLRRA’s event, sit in on “Railway Engineering on a Shoestring” (April 24), “Tax Credit Extensions — It’s Our Future” (April 23) and/or “Reassignment of Tax Credits — You Can Do It” (April 23 & 24). Then share what you’ve learned with a colleague. Every little bit helps.

A secure (but uncomfortable) place on the Hill
On March 28, the House passed the Rail and Public Transportation Security Act (H.R. 1401), which would provide long-term freight- and passenger-rail security funding. The bill would allocate $7.3 billion over four years for security-related programs carried out by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) involving railroads, public transportation entities and research activities. It also covers additional inspectors for rail security, a program to screen certain transportation workers and other DHS activities.

Amid rumblings of a President Bush veto, the House bill entered the Senate, which on March 13 approved a funding bill of its own: the Improving America’s Security by Implementing Unfinished Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 (S. 4). The bill includes an amendment calling for $3.5 billion in transit security during a three-year period.

Meanwhile, legislators from both Houses of Congress once again spent time contemplating the ins and outs, pros and cons and (with any luck at all) realities of rerouting hazardous-material shipments around high-threat areas. Lawmakers struggling to sort out, assess and address an assortment of rail-security issues? What else is new?

Will the new Congress put a price tag on preparedness or pursue legislation directing DHS to develop a national strategy for transportation security? Next month, we’ll check in with regulators, rail officials and other D.C. observers in an attempt to chip away at what’s being discussed in rail-lobby camps, on the Hill and in other nooks along the Beltway.



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