Transportation

  • Strengthening increasingly unstable rail tracks

    The big chunks of rock — crushed limestone or dolomite that engineers call ballast — which keep railroad tracks in place look like a solid footing even as freight cars rumble overhead. Temperature and vibration, however, can destabilize ballast over time, keeping it from safely transferring the weight of a loaded train to the soil below, draining water, and preventing vegetation from crowding the tracks. In some states, a booming industry of mining sand for use by oil and gas drillers in hydraulic fracturing has presented a new challenge: fine grains of sand can leak from rail cars, accumulate in rail bed ballast and, during a rainstorm, turn into mushy, track-loosening mud.

  • New oil trains safety rules short on preparedness, training regs: Critics

    New federal safety measures for oil trains announced earlier this month are being criticized by emergency responders who say the measures fail to address the issue of preparedness.The new rules, which go into effect next year, do not require railroads to notify state officials of Bakken crude oil shipments, and fire departments seeking that information will have to contact the railroads directly. Firefighter groups say 65 percent of fire departments involved in responding to hazardous materials incidents still have no formal training in that area.

  • Crumbling infrastructure to blame for growing number of derailments: Experts

    Transportation industry analysts say the increase in the number of derailments is due to a crumbling transportation infrastructure and a lack of interest in funding rail transportation. Amtrak, a federally subsidized for-profit corporation, has been the target of conservative legislators who want to cut government spending. “The problem that you have — and you’ve had it since 1976 and even before — is that there’s never been an investment program that would bring the infrastructure up where it belongs on existing capacity,” says Amtrak CEO. While derailments are usually due to equipment failures, human and environmental factors can contribute to train accidents.

  • New airport security technologies raise privacy concerns

    Researchers are developing surveillance technologies better to help airport security officials scan passengers and luggage for contraband and suspicious behavior. Privacy advocates say these expensive and ambitious projects, meant to increase public safety and ease air travel delays, risk intruding on passengers’ privacy.“What starts in the airport doesn’t stay there,” says a technology expert at the ACLU.

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  • New safety rules for crude oil shipments by rail criticized by both sides

    Regulators with the Department of Transportation(DOT) last Friday unveiled new rules for transporting crude oil by rail. The measures are expected to improve rail safety and reduce the risk of oil train accidents, but both the railway industry and public safety advocates have already issued criticism. Lawmakers representing states with oil trains traffic say the regulations do not go far enough in protecting the public, while railway representatives say the rules would be costly and result in few safety benefits.

  • Shipping oil by rail is booming. Technology can make it safer

    By Bryan W. Schlake

    Last year, trains transported more than one million barrels of oil per day in 2014 — a huge jump from 55,000 barrels per day in 2010. This increase in oil-by-rail transportation has come with a number of high-profile derailments. Can technology improve safety? Yes. While the risk associated with oil train derailments has not been eliminated, the transportation of crude oil by rail has certainly become safer through extensive research, development, and implementation of new technologies. Continued efforts by railroads, government agencies, research institutions, and universities will continue to improve the safety of crude oil transportation by rail, reducing risk and potentially alleviating public fears associated with railroad transportation.

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  • Dolphins, sea lions help Navy detect sea mines, underwater intruders

    For decades, the Pentagon has been training dolphins and sea lions to help detect underwater mines and intruding divers near U.S. military bases and along the paths of U.S. and allied ships in foreign locations. The first dolphin trained in mine detection was Notty in 1960. In San Diego, the U.S. Navy spends roughly $28 million a year to train and maintain about ninety dolphins and fifty California sea lions.In the future, Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) may replace the marine mammals in the mine-detection mission, but for now they share the assignment.

  • Despite disasters, oil-by-rail transport is getting safer

    By Bryan W. Schlake

    Oil production in the United States is booming. Last year, for the first time since 1987, annual U.S. field production of crude oil topped three billion barrels, a 170 percent increase since 2008. As pipelines quickly reached capacity, oil shippers turned to the railroads, which provided multiple incentives, including: flexibility in shipping options and contract timelines, shorter transit times to the refineries (five to seven days by rail compared with 40 days by pipeline), and the ability to choose which refineries to use. Oil production in the Bakken formation in North Dakota has increased from 81,000 barrels per day in 2003 to more than one million barrels by mid-2014 — with more than three-quarters of those barrels moving daily by rail out of North Dakota. With U.S. crude oil transport by rail nearing all-time highs, many are expressing fears about the potential of a crude oil spill in their community.

  • 437,000 crude oil barrels carried daily by rail from North Dakota to East Coast refineries

    In the wake of recent oil train derailments in West Virginia, and Galena, Illinois, the federal government has answered calls to release oil train figures. The U.S. Energy Information Administration, taking numbers from industry and government, report that more than one million barrels of crude oil move by train across the United States every day.Federal crude-by-rail information reveals that 437,000 barrels of Bakken crude oil were shipped daily in January from North Dakota to East Coast refineries. Those shipments passed through the Chicago area, making the region the country’s hub for oil train shipments.

  • Toronto wants Ottawa to make rail traffic through city safer

    Seventeen city councilors have joined Toronto mayor John Tory to push federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt to adopt measures meant to improve rail safety in the city. Canadian Pacific runs a rail line through Toronto, and the line carries crude oil, highly toxic substances, and radioactive materials. Considering the recent oil train accidents in Canada and the United States, residents near rail lines are concerned.

  • A very big concept lifts off

    In 2010, a group of defense contractors led by Northrop Grumman received a contract from the U.S. Department of Defense to create a so-called Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) — a super-sized surveillance aircraft that had the capability of spending days in the air on a single mission. The first test flight of the Airlander took place in August 2012. In 2013, however, budget cuts led to the cancellation of the project, and U.K.-based Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), which was part of contractors group, bought the Airlander back from the DoD at effectively scrap value. So the Airlander came back to the United Kingdom, where it lives in a giant hangar in Cardington, Bedfordshire. It is there because it is the only place in the United Kingdom that can house it, having been built for airship manufacture in 1915. HAH has big plans for it.

  • Calls for rethinking cockpit door security policy

    Following the 9/11 attacks, the European Air Safety Agency(EASA) and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration(FAA), in an effort to make hijackings more difficult, told commercial airlines to adopt systems which would prevent the takeover of passenger planes.News that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz of the Germanwings flight 4U95251 deliberately locked the flight captain out of the cockpit as part of what is now considered a murder-suicide case, has raised concerns over whether the post-9/11 cockpit door safety policy is too secure, posing a more serious threat to civil aviation than terrorism.

  • Germanwings flight 4U9525: a victim of the deadlock between safety and security demands

    By Yijun Yu

    People often confuse “security” and “safety,” but conceptually, these terms are different from each other. Security offers protection from intentional attacks, while safety is to prevent from natural accidents. While some security incidents can be accidental, or made to look accidental, some element of usually malicious intent is involved. The trade-off in both security and safety risks in this context is hard because the probability of accidents can be modelled while human intention cannot. One could try to estimate the probability of someone having bad intentions, especially pilots, but in the end it’s not possible to square one with the other — it is to compare apples with oranges. The Germanwings flight 4U9525, in which the pilot was locked out of the cockpit, shows that we need to reassess the risks and arguments around safety and security in the context of aviation, and find ways of bringing together hardware, software, and the flight crew themselves — perhaps through health monitoring devices — in order to ensure that both these demands work together, and do not become a threat in themselves.

  • In-flight plane control systems vulnerable to remote hacking: Experts

    Flaws in in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems and satellite communications leave commercial, private, and military planes vulnerable to hacking, according to cybersecurity experts. “We can still take planes out of the sky thanks to the flaws in the in-flight entertainment systems,” says one expert. “Quite simply put, we can theorize on how to turn the engines off at 35,000 feet and not have any of those damn flashing lights go off in the cockpit.” Terrorist groups are believed to lack the expertise to bring down a plane remotely, but it is their limitations, not aviation safeguards, which are keeping planes from being hacked.

  • Living near railroad tracks? Prepare for crude-oil-train accidents, spills

    The Minnesota Department of Transportation(MnDOT) reports that 326,170 Minnesotans live within a half mile of railroad tracks used by trains carrying crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region. An area covering a half mile on each side of the tracks, public safety officials say, is the area from which residents are likely to be evacuated in the event of an oil train incident or explosion. The department urges all residents living near an oil train track to be prepared for a train accident.