In the Two Minute Drill, we explain complex issues in politics in 500 words or less (roughly the amount of words it takes the average adult two minutes to read on a monitor). Politics just isn’t always that complicated. Without the fluff and partisan bias, even the most complex of our political differences can be explained succinctly. This week: taking a look at efforts to improve rail safety. This is The Two Minute Drill for April 17, 2015.
The derailment and explosion in southern West Virginia of a train carrying 100 tankers of crude oil in February has ignited a debate over the regulations for the rail shipment of crude. The incident was a stark reminder of the dangers of shipping crude oil by rail, and recalls several train derailments in recent years, including one last spring in Lynchburg, Va., that spilled 50,000 gallons of crude oil, and an explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in 2013 that killed 47 people and destroyed the city’s downtown.
Amidst this backdrop, Congress is debating the reauthorization of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA08; P.L. 110-432). Throughout the debate, Congress has focused on steps that it can take to prevent train derailments and collisions. But is this the right focus?
The Explanation (500 or Bust)
Incidents like the ones in West Virginia, Virginia, and Quebec often receive extensive publicity and cause harm to bystanders. As such, the prevention of train derailments and collisions has received the lion’s share of attention from Congress. Far less attention, however, has been devoted to trespassing, despite the fact that it is a much greater cause of rail-related fatalities than derailments and collisions combined.
Since 2005, nearly three-fifths of deaths in rail related incidents have been pedestrian trespassers (the trespassing deaths in this figure do not include suicides). In 2014, according to the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) Office of Safety Analysis, there were 526 trespasser deaths, 419 trespasser injuries, 213 suicides, and 40 injuries from suicide attempts on rail property. In comparison, there were only 2 deaths and 128 injuries in train derailments and collisions in 2014 (excluding subways and light rail systems).
Efforts by the railroad industry and government agencies have steadily reduced most types of rail-related fatalities in recent years. The rail industry and the U.S. Department of Transportation fund Operation Lifesaver, a national nonprofit organization that seeks to educate the public that railroad tracks are far riskier than they appear. Operation Lifesaver has been found effective and is a driving force in the reduction of many types of rail-related fatalities in recent years. For example, the number of deaths in grade-crossing incidents has fallen from 698 in 1990 to fewer than 300 in 2014.
In contrast, there has been no progress in reducing the number of deaths from trespassing, which as been the leading cause of rail-related fatalities since 1997. Through RSIA08, Congress authorized FRA to make a total of $5 million in grants to Operation Lifesaver from FY2010 through FY2013. Similarly, Title 23 of the U.S. Code provides for $220 million annually from the Federal Highway Trust Fund (the so-called “Section 130 program”) for train warning devices and other safety improvements at rail grade crossings. However, there is no dedicated program devoted to rail trespass prevention.
Word Count: 330
THE FIVE: Here are the five best things we’ve read all week.
- Trial and Error. “His release from prison five years and eight months earlier – a lifetime ago, a life he’d managed to mostly will out of his mind – had been a mistake. A clerical eror. A judge just signed off on the order. He had to go back.” From Robert Kolker in The Marshall Project: Unfreed – The Man Who Was Accidentally Released From Prison 88 Years Early.
- Spare Parts. “A surgeon placed a sensor on Mumford’s right shoulder, implanted a pacemaker-size device known as a stimulator just below the skin on his upper chest, and threaded wires into the muscles in his left arm. On the outside of Mumford’s body, a wire ran from the shoulder sensor to an external control unit; another wire ran from that control unit to a transmitting coil over the stimulator in his chest.” Thanks to this device, John Mumford was able to move one of his hands for the first time since he was paralyzed in an accident in 1982. Then the company that created that technology went out of business. From Brian Bergstein in the MIT Technology Review: Paralyzed Again – We Have the Technology to Dramatically Increase the Independence of People With Spinal-Cord Injuries. The Problem Is Bringing It to Market and Keeping It There.
- Booth’s Jack Ruby. “Corbett made himself a eunuch and didn’t check himself into Massachusetts General Hospital until he’d finished his prayers, had a full dinner, and taken a light stroll through the city that evening.” From Bill Jensen in The Washingtonian: The Insane Story of the Guy Who Killed the Guy Who Killed Lincoln.
- The Misinformation Industry. “Why doesn’t the government know what’s in your food? Because industry can declare on their own that added ingredients are safe.” From Eric Quinn in the Center for Public Integrity: Why the FDA Doesn’t Really Know What’s in Your Food.
- Private Benjamins. “That’s the legacy of Blackwater – they didn’t really make the business, but they’ve symbolized it. They’ve become the hood ornaments for an industry that was for centuries pretty much illegal, and now it’s pretty much re-emerged.” From James Risen in The New York Times: Blackwater’s Legacy Goes Beyond Public View.
And in case you missed it, check out The Weekly Column. This past week took a look the regulation of homeopathic products by the Food and Drug Administration. Read the Column for April 14, 2015 – The FDA Should Regulate Homeopathic Products out of Existence.