- - Monday, September 8, 2014

America’s recent energy boom has made North Dakota the No. 2 oil-producing state behind Texas and has brought jobs and prosperity to the state and the region.

It has also brought increased rail travel as the oil is transported from Bakken shale fields. Unfortunately, increased rail traffic has coincided with a rise in the number of rail accidents, including derailments. The most recent came last December, when a moving train carrying crude oil struck a derailed train near Casselton, igniting a massive fireball and causing an evacuation. Thankfully, there were no injuries.

Despite the railroad industry’s many advances, some problems have persisted for years, frustrating rail engineers. Bearing failure that often leads to derailments is one. Accidental decoupling is another. So are poor truck designs.

The good news is that innovative companies from outside the railroad industry have devised solutions. The bad news is that these solutions have been shunned by an industry hostile to those outside its closed culture. This stonewalling puts American lives and freight at risk. Congress needs to intervene.

Consider the strange case of Columbus Castings, of Columbus, Ohio - a railroad industry outsider, despite being the nation’s largest steel foundry. Columbus Castings created a product called the Z-Knuckle, which prevents accidental uncoupling.

The Z-Knuckle met the railroad industry’s newly created standard for such devices. But in an inexplicable twist, because the Z-Knuckle was the only device that met the standard, the industry refused to authorize its use. Instead, it simply chose not to enforce its own standard.

Other nonsensical examples abound. Several companies, including Amsted Rail, Standard Truck Car, National Railway Equipment and A. Stucki Co., have created advanced trucks - the framework that holds a rail car’s four wheels - that are less likely to derail and use less energy, due to enhanced suspension. These have been rejected by the railroad industry.

Stage 8 Locking Fasteners of San Rafael, Calif., took on the issue of derailment caused by wheel-bearing failure, the nation’s third-largest cause of train derailments, according to a 2012 University of Illinois study.

Wheel bearings are the round, metal rods inside a rail car’s wheel assembly that help the wheels roll smoothly. Bearings fail because the screws holding the bearing end caps — which maintain proper tension in the bearing — vibrate loose after thousands of miles of service. This can lead to derailments.

The rail industry knows this is a serious problem. It has tried for 50 years to devise a reliable screw-locking technology of its own, but to no avail. The best locking system the rail industry has been able to come up with still allows a failure rate of 23 percent. This is unacceptable.

Rail industry engineers have blamed the wheel bearings themselves, theorizing that the material inside the bearings was breaking down, causing them to lose their clamp on the screws, which then vibrated loose.

That answer obscures the real problem and provided a windfall to the bearing-replacement companies that would stand to lose profits if a credible screw-locking system is devised.

In 2009, a better system was devised. Stage 8 invented the Cap Screw Locking System designed to keep rail car wheel screws from vibrating loose. But it ran into the mighty rail industry bureaucracy. All new products that companies want to market to the nation’s rail carriers must be approved by the American Association of Railroads (AAR), the freight rail industry’s powerful trade group.

The organization withheld approval for years, blocking the new product that would threaten the revenue stream of bearing-replacement suppliers, who are cozy with Big Rail.

Stage 8 continued to hack through the bureaucratic thicket and when daylight appeared, the AAR set up another hurdle: A field test intended to prove the device’s failure. Instead, after 150,000 miles of the AAR’s own, real-world testing on rail cars, hauling coal from Wyoming to Missouri, the locking device showed no failures; not a single screw was loosened. It was a complete success.

Many companies have created groundbreaking solutions to problems that have bedeviled the railroad industry for years. Congress should act on their behalf - and on behalf of the railroads themselves and their many users - to help make America’s railroads safer. The passage of legislation would repair the railroad’s broken system.

Congress should adopt legislation that would require the Federal Railroad Administration - the government agency that oversees the rail industry - to adopt and enforce mandatory safety standards that would ensure bearing failures, decoupling and other accidents do not happen. This would permit railroads to use any technology - from inside or outside the industry — that meets the standards.
This would lead to safer railways across the country - and fewer derailments in places like North Dakota.

Robert J. Ahern is director and executive vice president of Stage 8 Locking Fasteners Inc.

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