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Bill would require railroads to deploy defect detectors along branch lines


DES MOINES — Lawmakers advanced legislation Thursday that would require railroads to deploy train defect detectors along their branch lines in the state, amid concerns about increased train traffic in Eastern Iowa and a derailment of toxic chemicals last year in Ohio.

Senate File 512 requires a railroad company to install and maintain at least one sensor every 15 miles on a branch line to detect axle and brake abnormalities on a passing train and alert the crew of any detected abnormality.

The bill also creates a penalty is between $500 and $5,000 for each time a train crosses or passes by a sensor that fails to notify the train crew of a detected defect. Subsequent violations would result in a penalty of between $5,000 and $10,000.

The move comes in the wake of a fiery derailment last year of a train carrying toxic chemicals in eastern Ohio that set off evacuations, a federal investigation and concerns about the effect the derailment and the fire could have on health and the environment.

It also comes amid concerns from Eastern Iowa communities about the impact of increased train traffic resulting from last year’s merger of Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern to create the first single-line freight rail network connecting Mexico, the United States and Canada. According to the companies, the biggest traffic increases will be between Sabula — an Iowa island city in the Mississippi River — and Kansas City, Mo., adding about 14.4 trains per day, from eight to roughly 22 by 2027.

The train tracks run along the riverfronts of several Mississippi River towns, including Clinton, Camanche, Princeton, LeClaire, Bettendorf, Davenport and Muscatine.

Seven cities in Iowa agreed to settlement payments from Canadian Pacific in exchange for not commenting publicly on the merger, including a $10 million payout to Davenport. Other cities that accepted agreements included Bettendorf, Muscatine, LeClaire, Clinton, Washington and Fruitland.

Sen. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, referenced the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, as well as the railroad merger. She also raised concerns that the bill applies only to branch lines — and not mainlines — operated by railroads in the state.

“In the Quad Cities area, we have to be very cognizant of the number of trains coming through with the merger,” she said. “And I think East Palestine in Ohio has taught us some lessons in regard to the importance of detectors. I was hoping we might be able to expand this a little bit and make sure we are well-informed and well-protected with our rail lines.”

Representatives for railroad companies oppose the Iowa bill, arguing they’ve voluntarily made dramatic safety improvements across every aspect of the industry.

Larry Lloyd, senior director of U.S. government affairs for Canadian Pacific Kansas City, noted derailments have decreased in the last two decades.

According to data released last year by the Federal Railroad Administration, the nation’s train accident rate is down 28 percent since 2000, and the last decade was the safest on record. Mainline railroad accident rates declined 44 percent since 2000. The derailment rate is down 31 percent since 2000 for all railroads.

“That has all happened because of the technology that railroads are privately investing in and deploying on our own,” Lloyd said. “We’ve all deployed these detectors already along our system,” he said, in areas that best make sense based on data and the condition, geography and use of the line.

He also noted the bill talks about a limited amount of sensors, saying the railway uses six different types of sensors that it deploys long its branch and mainlines.

“If the state wants to play a role in this, we’d be happy to have a discussion about partnerships we could make that would encourage additional deployment of technology that would bring additional investment to Iowa,” Lloyd said. “That would bring in additional innovation that Iowa can be a leader on. Those would be conversations we would want to have; not talking about something that we’re already doing.”

Railway representatives also raised concerns about the cost of installing the sensors on Iowa’s short line railroads. “Safety is always a cost-benefit analysis,” said Brad Epperly, representing BNSF Railway Co. “And we can’t eliminate all risk. … And rail safety is far greater than our roads.”

Chris Smith with SMART Transportation, which represents railroad workers, supports the legislation. Smith said staffing is thin and safety has suffered as railroads have cut employees and stretched the length of trains.

“There is no federal standard or regulations for detectors,” he told lawmakers, adding there “are hundreds of miles of track in the state of Iowa that have no detectors.”

“All these companies want to run their own standards and say they are doing the best,” Smith said. “And East Palestine quite simply proved that it is not the best system out there, that there needs to be some oversight.”

Smith said the bill does not go far enough and should be amended to include other sensors to monitor wheel bearings, temperature and dragging equipment.

Michael Walker, with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, has spent 20 years on the railroad. “The detectors that are on the track we go over, we depend on those to keep us safe,” he said.

An airline pilot can visually inspect a plane before takeoff, but that’s not feasible for locomotive engineers with trains that can be up to 3 miles long, he said.

“I think this is a very important bill to protect the trains (and) the people that run tracks — the employees,” Walker said.

Although lawmakers advanced the bill, members of the three-person subcommittee said they had reservations.

“I believe this is a good thing, (but) I wonder if it’s really a solution, though,” Sen. Scott Webster, R-Bettendorf, said. “You put them every 15 miles and no communication happens, it won’t help. I think there’s an overall problem here that sounds like may be a littler bit bigger than this particular situation.”

He also echoed Winckler’s concerns about the bill not applying to main rail lines.

“I’m in support of moving this along to continue conversation,” Winckler said. “We have an opportunity to make sure that what we are doing is cost-effective as well as keeping safety in mind.”