27 Jan Regulators Tighten Enforcement of Rail-Safety Rules
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Federal regulators are enforcing rail-safety rules more stringently, issuing more alleged violations against Amtrak and freight carriers amid worries over shipping crude oil and hazardous chemicals.
The Federal Railroad Administration leveled 6,485 violations carrying civil penalties against railroads in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, up 23% from the previous year, according to the agency’s annual enforcement report expected to be announced Wednesday.
The agency said it collected $15 million in civil penalties. The amount represents 75% of fines initially assessed, marking the highest such collection rate on record for the agency.
The railroad administration’s chief, Sarah Feinberg, said her agency had boosted inspector ranks and adopted a “no tolerance, no patience” policy for safety-rule violations on routes carrying passengers or shipments of crude oil and hazardous materials.
The agency has also been auditing railroads’ mechanical, track and other systems along such routes, which often wind through populated areas.
“Where we find violations, we’re writing them up,” Ms. Feinberg said in an interview. “That’s frequently more time-consuming, but it’s important for railroads to know that when we find violations, there will be consequences.”
An Amtrak spokeswoman said late Tuesday there weren’t any “consistent violations” and the railroad thoroughly reviews each one. She attributed Amtrak’s uptick in fiscal 2015 violations in part to issues such as improper reporting that didn’t affect safety. Amtrak’s 70 violations represent a fraction of the total.
A spokesman for the Association of American Railroads said safety has been improving over the past several decades, and railroads continue to take action to better safety including increased track inspections and implementing new technologies.
Union Pacific Corp. said safety is a primary focus, and last year it set safety records for both employees and safety-grade crossings. Norfolk Southern Corp. declined to comment. CSX Corp. and BNSF Railway Co. had no immediate comment late Tuesday.
FRA said the railroads hadn’t necessarily responded to the alleged violations noted in the enforcement report.
Crude-by-rail has become an increasingly important issue for the safety regulators and railroads due to a string of fiery derailments, including one in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people in 2013. But over the past year, the carloads of petroleum and petroleum products shipped by rail have fallen by nearly 10% as domestic drilling becomes less profitable with the declining price of oil.
Under Ms. Feinberg’s tenure, the agency has struck a tough note on safety. In May, the U.S. Transportation Department unveiled a stricter-than-expected rule on shipping crude by rail, including new tank-car standards and a requirement for new brakes on trains hauling more than 70 cars of hazardous flammable materials. The Transportation Department estimated the rule would cost the railroad industry $2.5 billion over 20 years, and save between $912 million and $2.9 billion due to fewer accidents. Railroads and other entities appealed certain parts of the rule to the agency and were rebuffed.
Ms. Feinberg also flexed her muscles on the proposed $30 billion merger betweenCanadian Pacific Railway Ltd. and Norfolk Southern Corp., telling The Wall Street Journal last week she expected to scrutinize “significant safety hurdles” to any merger between major freight railroads.
Challenges include combining safety cultures of two different organizations, including determining which company’s safety rules and protocols will take precedence and how to restructure a combined workforce to maintain the same level of communication and protection each had individually.
Canadian Pacific has said it would make Norfolk Southern safer. Of the Class I railroads cited by the agency, Canadian Pacific paid the least in fines, $639,000.