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GAO pumps the brakes on mandatory ECP

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s economic analysis of electronically controlled pneumatic brakes was based on insufficient data and may have overestimated the benefits of DOT’s proposed mandate, according to the Government Accountability Office.

   A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office is urging the Department of Transportation to reconsider its mandate for electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes.
   According to the GAO report, USDOT’s Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) of ECP brakes was based on insufficient data – in part because railroads provided only “limited” information to the department – and, as such may have overestimated the benefits of requiring ECP brakes for certain trains carrying flammable liquids.
   USDOT released new rules in May 2015 requiring stronger tank cars and the more efficient ECP brake systems in an attempt to improve the safety of the transport of crude and other flammable liquids by rail. ECP brakes can reduce the distance and time needed for a train to stop and keep more tank cars on the track in the event of a derailment, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
   The GAO review of USDOT’s RIA findings, mandated under the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015, included an analysis of rulemaking documents; interviews with 13 rail experts, DOT officials, representatives from the seven largest railroads in North America, and industry stakeholders like the Association of American Railroads (AAR). In the report, GAO compared USDOT’s estimates and modeling efforts against federal criteria and department standards for internal control.
   GAO said 70 percent of the experts it interviewed indicated USDOT’s estimates of economic and business benefits of ECP, such as reduced fuel consumption, reduced wear on wheels, and improved operational efficiencies, were “based on experiences that may not be representative.”
   USDOT “estimated benefits to railroads from improved operational efficiency (e.g., the ability to return to speed sooner after braking),” the report said. Although industry stakeholder interviews said the poor reliability of ECP brakes will “greatly limit any such benefits,” only 40 percent of railroads provided GAO with “extensive quantifiable data to support these claims.”
   GAO added that “DOT’s use of limited data adds uncertainty to the estimates that DOT did not always acknowledge in the rule and its supporting analysis.”
   The office recommend that USDOT recognize this uncertainty and reanalyze the potential benefits of an ECP brake mandate.
   “By acknowledging uncertainties and in the future requiring railroads to collect and provide DOT more data on ECP brake use, DOT could improve its estimates and public confidence in those estimates, and use the data to determine the extent to which the ECP brake rule is meeting its objectives,” GAO said in its report.
   The report noted that USDOT and an industry association conducted separate computer-based modeling and analysis of the potential safety benefits of ECP brakes, but because they took different approaches it is difficult to compare the two.
   While USDOT’s analysis found ECP brakes could reduce the number of cars at risk for puncture and release of their flammable liquid contents by nearly 20 percent compared with other braking technologies, the industry association’s model found only a “marginal” safety benefit.
   In addition, GAO found the USDOT’s analysis “lacked transparency as the information published may not be sufficient to enable an independent third party to replicate it. For example, DOT did not report complete details on specific inputs, such as how the model applied the brake force to tank cars.
   “Best practices identified by the Office of Management and Budget state that modeling results published by federal agencies should be supported by transparent data to facilitate third-party review,” the report added. “By providing more information about the modeling, DOT could help stakeholders and the public better understand the analysis and the extent to which the model’s results hinged on DOT’s choices and assumptions. This increased understanding could in turn increase confidence in the ECP brake requirement.”
   In a somewhat ironic twist, USDOT disagreed with the recommendations of the report because it said GAO “did not provide sufficient evidence” to support its claims.
   “GAO believes it had sufficient evidence and stands by the recommendations, as discussed in this report,” the office said.
   AAR said in a statement it is now calling on the DOT to withdraw its rules based on the findings in the report.
   “The GAO’s conclusions validate the freight rail industry’s position that the DOT had negligible data or testing results to justify the mandating of ECP brakes,” said AAR President and CEO Edward R. Hamberger. “The DOT should withdraw the brake rule and fully implement the GAO’s recommendations.”
   Hamberger added that “the freight rail industry supports the GAO’s recommendations directing the DOT to be more transparent by publishing information allowing a third party to fully assess and replicate the analysis, to conduct additional studies on all aspects of ECP braking, and to create a data-collection plan involving the railroads and operational experiences using ECP brakes.”

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