Joel Hans, Managing Editor, Manufacturing.net
Amid a few newsworthy derailments of trains carrying crude oil, energy companies and the public alike are concerned about the future of the U.S. rail infrastructure and what can be done in the near future to mitigate potentially serious and deadly incidents. With some 140,000 route-miles of track in the U.S. as of 2011, and thousands of bridges spanning rivers or interstates that must be navigated on a daily basis, there are countless points of failure.
Civil engineers have long been aware of the way that seasonal heating and cooling can affect the very structure of the railroad ties via expansion and contraction, particularly near bridges. To mitigate those affects, engineers have been using expansion joints on bridges, but when it comes to the extreme heat that much of the continental U.S. sees on an annual basis, it’s difficult to engineer a system that can withstand as much as four feet of expansion in a mile-long section of rail.
When this happens, the rail can buckle, a phenomenon known in the industry as a “sun kink,” which are leading causes of train derailments. In the winter, extreme bouts of cold can cause enough contraction to crack ties and pull them apart, to the point where they need to be warmed by up using flaming rope or other methods.
Naturally, the companies that manufacture steel tracks are doing more work to pre-stress rails and joints to minimize these affects. But one company, Alliance Sensors Group, argues that while many engineers within railway companies and mass transit agencies are doing good work to instrument bridges for movement, structural problems or track shifting, many of these inspections are visually-based, and not often enough, which leaves routes open to unnoticed flaws.
Instead, the bridges can be instrumented to determine if there are any flaws in the tracks, which means that railway companies could divert trains and repair the issues before an incident, such as a derailment, takes place.
Alliance Sensors Group has developed a linear sensor that can measure bridge movements and create empirical data on the condition of rails and bridges that can be tracked in real-time. They’re able to survive all the elements that leave railways buckling or cracking, such as extreme cold and heat, along with humidity, rain and snow. An IP67 rating guarantees that it won’t succumb to the elements.
In the photo, the company’s LV-45s have been affixed to the pier and to the bridge using ball joint swivel rodends. With this in place, the system can measure positional changes in three axes and track those changes over time, which means engineers can proactively identify potential problems, or, in the worst case, respond faster to potential derailment incidents. And if that means less trains coming off the tracks, we’re completely onboard.
CASSELTON, N.D. — Kerry’s Kitchen is where Casselton residents gather for gossip and comfort food, especially the caramel rolls baked fresh every morning. But a fiery rail accident last month only a half mile down the tracks, which prompted residents to evacuate the town, has shattered this calm, along with people’s confidence in the crude-oil convoys that rumble past Kerry’s seven times a day.
What was first seen as a stopgap measure in the absence of pipelines has become a fixture in the nation’s energy landscape — about 200 “virtual pipelines” that snake in endless processions across the horizon daily. It can take more than five minutes for a single oil train, made up of about 100 tank cars, to pass by Kerry’s, giving this bedroom community 20 miles west of Fargo a front-row seat to the growing practice of using trains to carry oil.
“I feel a little on edge — actually very edgy — every time one of those trains passes,” said Kerry Radermacher, who owns the coffee shop. “Most people think we should slow the production, and the trains, down.”
Moving More Oil Over Rails
As domestic oil production has increased rapidly in recent years, more and more of it is being transported by rail because of the lack of pipeline capacity. The trains often travel through populated areas, leading to concerns among residents over the hazards they can pose, including spills and fires.
Casselton is near the center of the great oil and gas boom unleashed these last few years. And it has seen up close how trains have increasingly been used to transport the oil from the new fields of Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, in part as a result of delays in the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. About 400,000 carloads of crude oil traveled by rail last year to the nation’s refineries, up from 9,500 in 2008, according to the Association of American Railroads.
But a series of recent accidents — including one in Quebec last July that killed 47 people and another in Alabama last November — have prompted many to question these shipments and have increased the pressure on regulators to take an urgent look at the safety of the oil shipments.
In the race for profits and energy independence, critics say producers took shortcuts to get the oil to market as quickly as possible without weighing the hazards of train shipments. Today about two-thirds of the production in North Dakota’s Bakken shale oil field rides on rails because of a shortage of pipelines. And more than 10 percent of the nation’s total oil production is shipped by rail. Since March there have been no fewer than 10 large crude spills in the United States and Canada because of rail accidents. The number of gallons spilled in the United States last year, federal records show, far outpaced the total amount spilled by railroads from 1975 to 2012.
Railroad executives, meeting with the transportation secretary and federal regulators recently, pledged to look for ways to make oil convoys safer — including slowing down the trains or rerouting them from heavily populated areas. (Trains go up to roughly 35 miles an hour through towns and at higher speeds outside populated areas.) They also agreed to speed up a review of tougher standards for the train cars used for oil. And last Thursday, safety officials urged regulators to quickly improve industry standards.
“This is an industry that has developed overnight, and they have been playing catch-up with the infrastructure,” said Deborah A. P. Hersman, the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the Casselton accident. “A lot of what we’ve seen could have been a lot worse.”
But given the fragmented nature of the business — different companies produce the oil, own the rail cars, and run the railroads — there is no firm consensus on what to do. And few analysts expect new regulations this year.
“There was no political pressure to address this issue in the past, but there clearly is now,” said Brigham A. McCown, a former administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “Producers need to understand that rail-car safety can become an impediment to production.”
The stakes are high. In five years, domestic oil production has jumped by 50 percent, to reach 7.5 million barrels a day last year.
But with little pipeline infrastructure, energy producers had to scramble for new ways to get their oil to refiners. Rail was the answer.
“The reality is that this came out of nowhere,” said Anthony B. Hatch, a rail transport consultant. “Rail has gone from near-obsolescence to being critical to oil supplies. It’s as if the buggy-whips were back in style.”
Far more toxic products are shipped on trains. But those products, like chlorine, are transported in pressurized vessels designed to survive an accident. Crude oil, on the other hand, is shipped in a type of tank car that entered service in 1964 and that has been traditionally used for nonflammable hazardous liquids like liquid fertilizers.
Safety officials have warned for more than two decades that these cars were unsuited to carry flammable cargo: their shell can puncture and tears up too easily in a crash.
In 2009, a train carrying ethanol derailed and exploded, killing one person in Cherry Valley, Ill. The National Transportation Safety Board said the inadequate design of the tank cars made them “subject to damage and catastrophic loss of hazardous materials.”
After that accident, railroads and car owners agreed in 2011 to beef up new cars with better protections and thicker steel. But they resisted improving safety features on the existing fleet because of cost. They also argued that thousands of new cars were being ordered anyway, so it would be just a matter of time before the fleet was replaced.
But analysts said that time has run out; railroads and car owners can no longer ignore the liabilities associated with oil trains, which could reach $1 billion in the Quebec accident.
“Quebec shocked the industry,” Mr. Hatch said, adding that while rail safety has improved over all, “the consequences of any accident are rising.”
Last November, the Association of American Railroads said it would support requiring that the 92,000 tank cars used to transport flammable liquids, including crude oil, be retrofitted with better safety features or “aggressively phased out.”
Still, other groups have resisted. The Railway Supply Institute, which represents freight car owners, told regulators three weeks before the Casselton accident that existing cars “already provide substantial protection in the event of a derailment” and suggested minor modifications to be phased in over 10 years.
While the safety record of railroads has improved in recent years, the surge in oil transportation has meant a spike in spill rates. From 1975 to 2012, federal records show, railroads spilled 800,000 gallons of crude oil. Last year alone, they spilled more than 1.15 million gallons, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. And that figure does not include the Casselton spill, estimated at about 400,000 gallons.
The accidents have also created a sense of weariness among elected officials and even staunch oil backers.
North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, a Republican, insisted that the first priority was improving tank cars. “These exploding tank cars are obviously very powerful and very dangerous,” he said.
The accidents have brought another problem to light. Crude oil produced in the Bakken appears to be a lot more volatile than other grades of oil, something that could explain why the oil trains have had huge explosions.
Here too, the warnings came too late.
Federal regulators started analyzing samples from a few Bakken wells last year to test their flammability. In an alert issued on Jan. 2, P.H.M.S.A. said the crude posed a “significant fire risk” in an accident.
The Federal Railroad Administration also pointed to rising numbers of oil cars that showed a “form of severe corrosion” on the inside of the tanks, covers and valves.
After the recent meeting with regulators, the American Petroleum Institute pledged it would share its own test data about the oil, which they have said is proprietary.
While the tank cars themselves have not caused any accident, they failed to contain their cargo. That happened on the outskirts of Casselton when a 106-car oil train crashed into a soybean train that derailed on a parallel track.
In a preliminary report, the N.T.S.B. said 18 of the 20 oil tank cars that derailed were punctured. Much of the oil spilled was incinerated by the explosions, and some soaked into nearby corn fields.
Aside from evacuating nearby farms, there was little the fire department could do but watch the train burn.
Tim McLean, Casselton’s fire chief, pictured what the town would look like if an oil train derailed. The large propane supply tank would explode “like a bomb” and incinerate two multifamily houses next to it. Five blocks to the west are a lumber yard and two gasoline stations. Oil might accumulate in storm sewers and possibly spread a fire underground.
“There’s virtually no way we could protect these buildings,” he said as he passed the barber shops, drugstore and pizza parlor, all occupying sturdy brick buildings more than a century old. “It would be too hot.”
The terror of what might have happened hit many here immediately.
Adrian Kieffer, the assistant fire chief, rushed to the accident and spent nearly 12 hours there, finishing at 3 a.m. “When I got home that night, my wife said let’s sell our home and move,” he said.
A version of this article appears in print on January 26, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Accidents Surge as Oil Industry Takes the Train
U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley met Friday at Portland Fire & Rescue headquarters with railroad companies and first responders, saying reforms are needed to address dangers in Oregon from trains hauling potentially explosive crude oil. (Rob Davis/The Oregonian)
U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley met Friday in Portland with railroad companies, emergency responders and public officials to deliver a clear message: The two Oregon Democrats take oil train safety seriously and believe more needs to be done to protect the state’s residents.
Last year, 110 trains passed through Portland each carrying dozens of cars filled with potentially explosive crude oil from North Dakota. They’re moving the same type of oil that was involved in three high-profile explosions since July, including one in Quebec that killed 47 people and leveled part of a town.
The hour-long meeting Wyden organized at Portland Fire & Rescue headquarters demonstrated the senators’ concern about oil train safety and allowed them to hear directly from first responders. But it also reinforced a festering issue for oil trains.
While there’s been a lot of talk about making them safer, there isn’t much to show for it.
Oil still moves with lighter regulation on trains than if it were transported in traditional ways, such as oil tankers. Despite pledges, railroad companies have been slow to provide state officials with information about oil train routes, their frequency and emergency response plans. Rail companies are resisting legislative efforts to increase those disclosures in Washington state.
“Too many Oregon communities believe that the safety and public disclosure rules for transporting this oil are stuck in a time warp,” Wyden said. “We’re going to have to strike a better balance between information sharing and security.”
Friday’s meeting yielded some suggestions for improvement. Terry Moss, the St. Helens police chief, said 911 dispatchers there don’t know when mile-long oil trains are passing through his community and blocking crossings for minutes at a time. Dispatchers currently can’t help police and fire responders route around trains, Moss said.
But it also struck out on familiar questions, like how long it would take to phase out thousands of old oil tank cars first identified as safety risks in 1991. Rail companies said they didn’t know.
Wyden, chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, has promised an investigation and said he would track oil train safety until reforms are chaptered in law.
“The Senate is going to bird-dog this,” Wyden said. “This is not something that’s just going to be debated for a few weeks – we’re going to stay at this until it gets fixed.”
Feds Raise Concerns Over Transporting Crude Oil By Rail
Federal officials have sounded the alarm over shipping crude oil by rail, following a series of accidents. The announcement comes as two Bay Area cities consider proposals to accept the shipments. Christin Ayers reports.