Editorial: ‘For rail safety’s sake: ECP brake technology a must’ by John Risch, Natl. Legislative Director, SMART TD

Published: March 28, 2017

Last updated on March 30th, 2017

By John Risch
National Legislative Director
SMART Transportation Division

Recently, I was the only labor participant in a technology roundtable before the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure where we discussed emerging technology in the railroad industry.

The focus of my comments was on Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) Brakes. I have operated trains with ECP brakes and they are the greatest safety advancement I have seen in my 40 years in the railroad industry. They slow and stop trains up to 70 percent faster than conventional brakes and are the safest most advanced train braking system in the world.

The railroad industry, in arguing against the implementation of ECP brakes, has claimed that dynamic brakes and distributive power are better choices. While they are correct that dynamic braking and distributive power are helpful in braking trains, the truth is – these two features are not nearly as effective as an ECP brake system.

Below is my Top 11 list (which is even better than a Top 10 list) on why ECP brakes are better than conventional air brakes:

1. ECP brakes maintain a train’s brake pipe pressure 100 percent of the time, conventional brakes do not. The colder the weather, the thinner the air, the more crucial maintaining brake pressure is.

2. ECP brakes allow for a”graduated release.” That means the engineer can partially release the train’s brakes without having to fully release them. This is vitally important because once a train’s brakes are released it takes time to recharge the train’s brake pipe pressure in order for the brakes to work again. The graduated release feature allows an engineer to maintain the speed of his/her train down steep grades with a partial application of the brakes, without fully releasing and reapplying the train’s brakes repeatedly. The graduated release feature all but eliminates the possibility of a runaway train.

3. When the engineer makes an emergency application of the brakes, every car with ECP brakes applies 100 percent of the time. This is not always true with conventional brakes.

4. ECP brakes would have prevented the terrible Lac-Megantic oil train tragedy that killed 47 people and destroyed the town, a factor cited in Transport Canada’s report on the accident. These brakes would have prevented the accident, because when air pressure on a car equipped with ECP brakes drops below 50 psi, the car automatically goes into emergency mode. So even an improperly secured train will not roll away.

5. ECP brakes allow the crew to monitor every car in the train in real time to determine if the brakes are applied or released. Conventional brakes do not.

6. ECP brakes record retrievable data associated with brake failures. There is no such review for conventional brakes. Trains are inspected every 1,000-1,800 miles and if the brakes are working during the inspection they continue on. If a car has brakes that fail to apply during that inspection, the car is taken to a repair facility. Often that facility is a heated shop where the car warms up, the brakes are tested and if they work at that point, the car is not repaired, rather, the car is placed back in the train.

7. ECP brakes all but eliminate in-train forces because all the cars apply and release at once. Conventional brakes cause lots of in-train forces, some of which damage merchandise and even cause derailments.

8. ECP brakes cause all cars to brake evenly, which dramatically reduces damage to wheels and brake shoes, saving a great deal of money in maintenance and repair. Conventional brakes do not. The modest cost of installing ECP brakes, about $3,000 per car on a new DOT 117 tank car that costs $144,000 to build, and about $60,000 per locomotive, will be more than paid for in the savings in car repairs, let alone reduced train derailments.

9. ECP brakes can be modified to apply hand brakes to a railcar automatically from the locomotive, allowing the crew to apply a hand brake on every car in the train in seconds. Conventional brakes must be applied by hand and it can take an hour or more to properly secure a train.

10. ECP brakes are required by the AAR for the movement of nuclear waste trains because they are the safest braking system available.

11. ECP brakes can be modified and will evolve to do everything that sophisticated wayside train detectors do now, and will do it constantly in real time, eventually eliminating the need for wayside detectors.

So, for the safety of rail workers, passengers and the residents in the cities and towns that trains run through, it is vital ECP brakes be phased-in in the freight rail industry.