New ECP braking technology would benefit safety

When new technology is introduced in the railroad industry, there's always a game of "give and take" played between management and labor.

But in a recent public safety hearing before the Federal Railroad Administration regarding the implementation of a new braking technology, it's clear that railroads are willing to give a little - but only if they can take away a lot.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen testified before the FRA on January 16 regarding electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) braking systems. The ECP technology reduces stopping distances for trains and is seen as a safety improvement, something the BLET strongly supports.

Delivering the testimony in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the BLET was Thomas A. Pontolillo, the BLET's Director of Regulatory Affairs.

"The BLET has a long and proud history of promoting and working to advance the implementation of technologies that enhance railroad industry safety," he testified. "We recognize the potential benefits of ECP brake systems - both for our members and for the industry, as a whole."

However, he told the FRA panel that the BLET is not in favor of requests by the BNSF Railway and the Norfolk Southern Railroad to waive highly important Federal safety inspections as part of the pilot project. Those waiver requests are nothing more than a way for the railroads to cut costs and will degrade overall safety in the industry if granted, Pontolillo said.

BNSF and NS are seeking to implement a pilot project to test the new brakes on certain portions of their territories.

"We fully support pilot projects of this type, and would view with an open mind petitions for waiver from compliance with FRA regulations that interfere with this effort," Pontolillo said. "However, our reading of the petition has convinced us that the pilot - as initially presented - falls far short of what is required, because a number of necessary conditions were omitted from the petition and relief is being sought from a number of regulations that do not restrain achievement of the goals of the pilot."

In exchange for implementing the new braking system, the railroads are seeking waivers of highly important safety checks that aren't necessarily related to the technology. For example, the railroads are seeking to waive the Federal requirement for a daily locomotive inspection.

"The purpose of the daily locomotive inspection is to ensure - at least once each calendar day - that there are no federal defects in any of the various locomotive subsystems at the time of the inspection," Pontolillo testified. "Waiving this requirement will expose locomotives in ECP service to an unacceptably lower standard of inspection, while denying the request will not impair in any way the ECP pilot. FRA should deny this request."

In addition, railroads are seeking relief from the requirement that 100 percent of the brakes must be effective and operative prior to departure of a train from the initial terminal. The railroads also asked for numerous other waivers, including the right to waive various brake test and inspection requirements, and other important safety systems currently mandated by Federal law, such as standards for end-of-train devices.

Another safety degradation is the fact that railroads seek to establish new inspection standards for trains equipped with ECP brakes - inspection standards that are different than standards for trains equipped with conventional brakes.

"(E)stablishing different standards for different equipment sets that will be operated side-by-side, when they are not operationally required, is a recipe for confusion and injects an unnecessary risk," Pontolillo said.

In the end, the BLET applauded the railroads for taking the first step in the eventual broad implementation of this safety-improving technology. However, their request as currently written would have the potential to degrade safety and is nothing more than a way to cut costs.

"FRA must consider the safety case for ECP in reaching its determination concerning this petition," Pontolillo said. "Instead, Petitioners have largely sought relief from those regulations necessary to create what can only be called a 'labor cost savings' case for ECP."



© 2007 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen