Northwest Democrats furious at Trump administration over oil-train brake rule rollback

Democrats in the region are piling on their criticism of a Trump administration decision to withdraw a railroad braking-system rule aimed at trains carrying highly flammable commodities.

The Department of Transportation said it jettisoned the requirement for electronically controlled pneumatic brakes because “the expected benefits do not exceed the expected cost.”

The decision added to long list of rollbacks of Obama-era regulations by the Trump administration, but this one has particular resonance in the Northwest, where a June 2016 derailment near Mosier, raised concerns about the oil trains that run through the region.

Sen. Jeff Merkley was first to criticize the Dec. 4 ruling, calling it “a huge step backward and one that puts our land, homes, and lives at risk.” Other pols joined in as the week wore on.

Governor Kate Brown:

Safety shouldn’t be up for political debate. The Trump Admin’s decision to roll back rules that improve oil train safety is deeply troubling. We expect the federal govt. to put in place standards that protect our communities & prevent dangerous accidents. 

Ron Wyden:

This is outrageous. The Trump Admin is once again willing to sacrifice the safety of Americans in the name of undoing regulations. This is a senseless decision that endangers our communities by making oil by rail transportation less safe.

Governor Jay Inslee:

Here is my statement with @OregonGovBrown on the Trump Administration’s rollback of new oil train safety rules. This is a reckless and dangerous step that caves to corporate special interests. It undoes rules that are crucial to protecting our communities: …

The mandate for “ECP” brakes was part of a May 2015 rulemaking by the Obama administration. It required use of the braking systems by 2021 and 2023, depending on the particular cargo. ECP brakes use electronic signals to control brakes simultaneously throughout a train, reducing braking distances compared to traditional air brake systems.

But the railroad industry fought back, saying it hadn’t been demonstrated that ECP brakes would lead to fewer derailments, at least not to a degree justifying their cost. The Association of American Railroads sued, but put that suit on hold after Congress passed a law that required further review of the rule, to be concluded by this Dec. 4.

That review ultimately included a study by the National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board. A finding that it was “unable to make a conclusive statement concerning the emergency performance of ECP brakes relative to other braking systems” was cited prominently in the Trump administration’s announcement that it was rescinding the rule.

The industry and supporters in Congress hailed the ruling, but critics said it ignored agreement dating back for years that ECP brakes would enhance safety. They noted, too, that the NAS committee pointedly said its report was “not intended to be a comprehensive consideration of the performance of ECP brakes relative to that of other braking systems, nor is it intended to analyze the maximum capabilities of a brake system in … reducing the incidence and severity of spills from derailments.”

Friends of the Columbia Gorge said the Trump administration’s decision pointed to the need for Oregon to pass “strong oil train” legislation next year. In the 2017 session, the Legislature came close on a bill that would have would have required railroads to carry “worst case” insurance and create state-approved spill prevention and quick-response plans, but the legislation died amid criticism from advocates that it lacked transparency.