Can new braking system stop train disaster in suburbs?

As a former railroad brakeman, the region's top planner Joe Szabo knows how to stop a train.

So it's significant he backs a controversial new federal rule requiring freight railroads to install electronic braking systems on trains carrying crude oil and ethanol.

Shiploads of volatile fuel are increasing in the Chicago region with about 40 crude oil trains a week, data that concerns suburban mayors and fire departments wary of a worst-case scenario.

Railroads and shippers are pushing back against the new braking system, but Szabo, a former Federal Railroad Administration chief who now heads the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, is positive the move will protect the region from a hazmat disaster.

“The industry is hooting and hollering and threatening to sue to have the rule deleted. But what's ironic is these arguments are the same ones used 120 years ago when Congress mandated they use the old air brake system,” Szabo said in a recent interview.

The railroad industry has dramatically reduced accidents and derailments, Szabo said, but “while there's less likelihood of an incident, the potential consequences are higher. The volatility of the product certainly has been a game-changer.”

The feds are recommending electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, which are projected to decrease stopping distances from 40 to 70 percent, depending on the load. The technology also could reduce the likelihood of tank cars being punctured in a derailment by 36 percent, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported.

Existing train brakes kick in “one car at a time,” Szabo said, explaining that as some cars are stopping, others still have momentum.

“With ECPB, the entire train starts braking simultaneously. Not only is the braking distance shorter, you don't have all this kinetic energy pushing from behind,” he added.

So what does the railroad industry have to say?

“The mandating of ECP brakes, which is unproven technology, ... will not prevent derailments and will not provide meaningful overall safety benefits that our industry and the general public want,” Association of American Railroads spokesman Ed Greenberg said.

The government estimates the brakes will cost about $492 million, although industry estimates reach $1 billion.

The American Petroleum Institute filed a lawsuit over ECPB and cited skepticism of its efficacy.

“Improving on a 99.997 percent safety record requires data-driven efforts to prevent derailments,” spokeswoman Sabrina Fang said. “To maximize the safety impact of this rule ... braking systems and other actions must all be based on facts and science.”

Szabo counters that not only will the new brakes stop oil conflagrations, they'll also help prevent crashes at railroad crossings.

“This is where we could and should evolve to — it's where technology will take us to better advance public safety,” he said.

Federal Railroad Administration data shows there were 69 train derailments in Illinois between Jan. 1 and May 31, and 59 during the same time period in 2014.

A BNSF Railway crude oil derailment near Galena this March caused an explosion and massive fire. But minor incidents occur frequently under the wire. On May 5 in Aurora, one car on a BNSF train carrying hazmat derailed at 36 mph because of a missing coupler pin. Nothing was released.

ECPB ... good idea? Bad idea? Drop me an email at

Just the ticket?

A joint effort by Metra, 18 police agencies and the BNSF Railway to stop people from ignoring warnings of oncoming trains at crossings resulted in 16 citations and 31 warnings Wednesday.

You should know

So how bad will my morning commute be? Cook County is trying to answer that question with an interactive map that lets drivers click on construction projects and get a quick summary or a detailed description. For more info, go to


Pace holds an open house from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday to discuss its new Pulse bus system at the Copernicus Center, 5216 W. Lawrence Ave., Chicago. Pulse is a plan to put express buses with limited stops on major roads in the suburbs. The Pulse Milwaukee Line between the Golf Mill Shopping Center in Niles and Jefferson Park Transit Center will debut in 2017.

Gridlock alert

Hang in there. Winter is coming.

• Sorry Elk Grove Village. The left lane in each direction on Busse Road at the Jane Addams Tollway will close starting at 8 p.m. today through October. It's all in aid of rebuilding the tollway bridges over Busse.

• West Street in Wheaton will close to cars at the Union Pacific Railroad tracks from Tuesday through Sept. 4. UP is replacing the crossing. Pedestrians will be allowed through weekdays during the morning and afternoon rush.

One more thing

Kids heading back to college or taking a last summer trip by bus? Book now because researchers at DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development estimate hundreds of intercity buses will be sold out over the Labor Day holiday.

About 1.14 million passengers will hop on an intercity bus this year, up by 5 percent from 2015, transportation professor Joseph Schwieterman predicts.

Will new rules make all trains carrying hazardous materials safe?

Local fire chiefs worry about train hazmat incidents

Durbin: Fix suburban tank cars before accident happens

Feds tighten safeguards for oil trains, advocates want more

Freight train hazmat leaks increase significantly in 2014

Rail-safety risks remain uncomfortable

Aurora, Barrington ask judge to throw out oil train rules

Suburban first responders train for hazmat train disaster

  CMAP Executive Director Joseph Szabo talks about train safety in his new office. Marni Pyke/
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