Expert analysis: SoCal refinery plans for crude oil trains to pass over the Benicia railroad bridge

By Roger Straw, BenIndy Editor
With expert analysis by Dr. Phyllis Fox

martinezrailbridge350
Union Pacific Railroad bridge, the first bridge at this location, built between April 1929 and October 1930 by Southern Pacific. It is used by Union Pacific and BNSF (trackage rights) freight trains and 36 scheduled Amtrak passenger trains each weekday. Passenger trains include the long-distance trains California Zephyr and Coast Starlight and short-haul Capitol Corridor trains….It is the second-longest railway bridge in North America, and the longest railway bridge west of the Mississippi River. [Wikipedia]
On March 21, The Benicia Independent posted news that Berkeley Vice Mayor Linda Maio would approach the Berkeley City Council with a resolution “Opposing transportation of hazardous materials along California waterways through densely populated areas, through the East Bay, and Berkeley.”  The resolution was passed unanimously on March 25, 2014.

In her background materials and in the resolution, Vice Mayor Maio made the extraordinary claim that Phillips 66 was seeking a permit to ship extreme crudes by rail from “Donner Pass, through Auburn, Rocklin, and Roseville, proceed along the Sacramento River through Sacramento and Davis to Benicia and along the San Francisco Bay through Martinez, Richmond, Berkeley, Emeryville, and Oakland.  From Oakland the trains would use the Coast Line via Hayward, Santa Clara, San José, Salinas and continue along the Pacific Coast into San Luis Obispo County.”

Railroads are notably secretive about routing of hazardous materials, so I asked Maio to clarify exactly how she determined that these crude oil trains would pass through Benicia and across the 85-year-old Benicia rail bridge (built in 1929) to Martinez, along the Carquinez Strait and down through the East Bay.

Vice Mayor Maio asked her “subject matter expert,” Dr. Phyllis Fox, to be in touch, and below is her detailed and I think rather conclusive explanation.  It looks like Benicians are facing not only the offloading of 100 train cars of crude each day, but another 100 cars passing through on tracks shared by Amtrak.The following is by Phyllis Fox, Ph.D, PE, BCEE, QEP, Environmental Management, Rockledge, Florida:

I’m the subject matter expert that ferreted out the route of the Santa Maria trains for the CBR Berkeley Resolution.

I reviewed the full DEIR for the Santa Maria Rail Spur Project for the Sierra Club. The DEIR (and my comments) are at: http://www.slocounty.ca.gov/planning/environmental/EnvironmentalNotices/railproject.htm

The DEIR fails to disclose the route the trains will take from their entrance to California to San Jose, a fundamental flaw in the DEIR. However, there are important clues.

First, the DEIR on p. 4.12-7 suggests the Mulford line out of Oakland to Santa Clara would be used. The only way to get to Oakland is through Richmond and Berkeley.

Second, on p. 4.12-22, the DEIR notes “However, north of San Jose through the Bay area there are areas of multiple mainline tracks, and a large number of commuter trains. Therefore, it is unclear how much the crude oil unit train would overlap with the Coast Starlight. Given this uncertainty, the EIR has limited the analysis to the Coast Line.” (e.g., the DEIR only discusses the route from San Jose to Santa Maria, leaving the reader to guess which East Bay cities will be affected.) The implication is that any route with capacity is fair game.

Third, throughout the DEIR, interference between “commuter” trains and the crude unit trains is discussed. See, e.g., Sec. 4.12. The Union Pacific Coast Starlight line is apparently a key option. Figure 4.12-3 shows it passes through Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland, and down the East Bay.

Fourth, finding no clear statement in the DEIR as to the East Bay route, I did an exhaustive survey of railroad maps. This work indicates that rail lines go either: (1) down the Central Valley, roughly parallel to I-5, or through Benicia, Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland, and down the East Bay. There is no connection between these two routes except for the Altamont Corridor Express or ACE commuter line from Stockton, over the Altamont Pass into Livermore, Pleasanton, and Fremont. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altamont_Corridor_Express.  The ACE line would be an unlikely choice given the challenges posed by the Altamont Pass in handling unit trains with 80+ cars weighing up to 18,000 tons that are a mile long. The line has significant operating limitations including limited capacity, single track for much of the route, slow average operating speeds, and service limitations. Further, the line alarmingly, passes through the Niles Canyon, which also contains the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct, carrying the water supply for San Francisco. The DEIR is silent on the ACE line. Thus, the only route that appears viable, coming from northern California, is through Sacramento (Roseville), the refinery towns and into Berkeley, Oakland etc. The most likely route is from the northern part of CA, as both Bakken crude and tar sands crude come from the far north and will most likely be sent first west into WA or OR into northern California or through Reno.

Finally, the DEIR suggests Union Pacific would be the carrier and it includes a map of the UP rail lines in CA. This map is on p. 4.12-7. It shows what I describe above in item #4, two parallel rail lines with the only connections leading into the East Bay through Benicia, or out of Stockton over the Altamont Pass. See also the UP Gross Weight Map: http://www.up.com/cs/groups/public/@uprr/documents/up_pdf_nativedocs/pdf_gross_weight_full_up_maps.pdf

There are no other connecting rail lines between the Central Valley route and the East Bay. Thus, by process of elimination, I (and others who did similar analyses) concluded the most likely route is through the East Bay.

Regardless, the DEIR does not restrict the route. Thus, any route can be used, so the East Bay cannot be eliminated.

Phyllis Fox, Ph.D., PE

Share...