Tag Archives: Benicia-Martinez Railroad Drawbridge

Crude-by-rail: One federal inspector oversees all California’s railroad bridges, no state oversight

Repost from The Contra Costa Times
[Editor:  The issue of bridge safety is important here in Benicia for two reasons.  Locally, we understand that Valero’s proposed oil trains would roll PAST the refinery in order to back into the offloading racks, thus coming to a stop near enough to the Benicia-Martinez bridge that, in the event of an explosion, the bridge itself could be severely impacted if not destroyed.  Beyond Benicia, our little City’s decision would impact rail lines all the way from Alberta and North Dakota, including bridges of questionable security all along the way.  – RS]

Crude-by-rail: One federal inspector oversees all California’s railroad bridges, no state oversight

By Matthias Gafni, 09/12/2014
View of the underside of the Benicia-Martinez Railroad Drawbridge in Benicia, Calif., on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
View of the underside of the Benicia-Martinez Railroad Drawbridge in Benicia, Calif., on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

As concerns grow over aging rail infrastructure, earthquake readiness and a dramatic increase in crude oil shipments by train, state railroad regulators are scrambling to hire their first-ever railroad bridge inspectors — two of them.

Once they are hired, the California Public Utilities Commission plans to create a state railroad bridge inventory to determine which are most at risk. That’s right — neither the state nor federal government has a list of railroad bridges for California or the rest of the country. Until that happens, the safety of California’s thousands of railroad bridges — key conduits that carry people and hazardous materials over environmentally sensitive ecosystems and near urban areas — is left up to rail line owners and a single federal inspector who splits his time among 11 states.

An Amtrak train crosses the Benicia-Martinez Railroad Drawbridge in Benicia, Calif., on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
An Amtrak train crosses the Benicia-Martinez Railroad Drawbridge in Benicia, Calif., on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

“Two more inspectors is better than none, but it’s really a Band-Aid,” said Suma Peesapati, attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental group fighting the oil rail influx. “I think there should be no crude by rail over those bridges until there’s a comprehensive look at all of them.”

No California rail bridges have failed in recent memory, but the 6.0 earthquake that rattled the Napa area on Aug. 24 provided a reminder that California must monitor its aging rail infrastructure.

Following the quake, the Federal Railroad Administration worked with Caltrans to contact railroads within a 100-mile radius and ensure bridges and tracks were inspected for damage before resuming normal operations. The Napa Valley Wine Train, which was closed for two days after the quake, had its own private inspector go over the tracks and numerous bridges, including one traversing Highway 29. The inspector gave the green light to continue running Aug. 26.

Caltrans employs 120 inspectors and 80 specialty personnel to inspect the state’s public automobile highway bridges to ensure the integrity of the elevated structures, in comparison to the one federal inspector for all of California’s rail bridges, most of which are privately owned.

Those railroad bridges are inspected, maintained and regulated by company personnel, but watchdogs say that’s far from adequate.

In its annual Railroad Safety Activity Report to the state Legislature in November, the CPUC identified the state’s railroad bridges as a “potential significant rail safety risk.”

“There are many unknown questions regarding bridge integrity that need to be answered to ensure public safety,” the report found.

The Benicia-Martinez Rail Drawbridge, built in 1930 and tucked between the automobile spans, carries hazardous material shipments across the Carquinez Strait to East Bay refineries, along with 30 Amtrak Capitol Corridor passenger trains each weekday. The bridge is owned by Union Pacific and is safe, the company’s spokesman said.

“We regularly inspect all of our bridges in California,” said Union Pacific’s Aaron Hunt. “We perform necessary maintenance required to assure the safe use of our bridges. Bridges and culverts are a critical part of our 32,000-mile network.”

Union Pacific has spent more than $42 billion on infrastructure, Hunt said, not specifying what portion of that was devoted to bridges, including $4.1 billion scheduled for this year. “These are private investments, not taxpayer dollars,” he said.

However, the state report found many bridges are owned by smaller short-line railroads that “may not be willing or able to acquire the amount of capital needed to repair or replace degrading bridges.”

Crude by rail

Concern has grown about bridge safety and rail safety in general with the increase of crude oil shipments by rail. They’ve jumped 158 percent in California from just September to December 2013, according to the state energy commission.

This year, the CPUC created the Crude Oil Reconnaissance Team to monitor the oil-by-train boom to ensure federal and state safety laws are followed.

In June, federal rail chief Joseph Szabo spoke to an Indiana newspaper about the crude-by-rail boom: “The movement of this product is a game changer. We have to rethink everything we’ve done and known in the past about safety.”

In response to the increase and some deadly accidents, including a derailment last summer in Quebec, Canada, that killed 47 people, the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed tank car safety upgrades.

As of now, about 100 rail cars of crude roll through populated areas of the East Bay each week along the BNSF line from Stockton to Kinder Morgan’s rail depot in Richmond. The route traverses the 1,690-foot-long, 80-foot-high Muir Trestle, above Alhambra Avenue in Martinez. The trestle was constructed in 1899 and rebuilt 30 years later. Those rail cars rumble through Antioch, Pittsburg, Bay Point, Martinez, and Hercules, said Contra Costa Hazardous Materials chief Randy Sawyer.

Aging

Based on total track miles and federal estimates of a bridge occurring every 1.25 miles of track, the CPUC estimates there are about 5,000 California railroad bridges.

Most are old steel and timber structures built more than 100 years ago, and “actual railroad bridge plans or records are either absent or unreliable,” the CPUC report found.

“It’s part of the infrastructure that’s dilapidated, not only in California, but across the country,” Peesapati said. “Bridges are really an example of the problem.”

American Society of Civil Engineers past President Andy Herrmann, a bridge consultant, said companies balk at releasing bridge data for competitive reasons, but he believes bridges are maintained safely.

“There’s a very strong profit motive to keep the bridges open,” Herrmann said. “Detours will cost them a fortune.”

However, the 2007 Government Accountability Office report also found that “Because bridge and tunnel work is costly, railroads typically make other investments to improve mobility first.”

Are they safe?

In 1991, a freight train traversing steep switchbacks in Dunsmuir, Siskiyou County, derailed, sending rail cars tumbling off a bridge and resulting in 19,000 gallons of metam sodium, a concentrated herbicide, leaking into the upper Sacramento River. The accident killed all vegetation, fish and other aquatic animals 45 miles downstream, rendering some invertebrate species extinct. Several hundred people exposed to the contaminated water required medical treatment in what’s still considered the worst inland ecological disaster in the state.

Although the accident was not caused by bridge failure, it led the railroad to build a derailment barrier on the Cantara Loop bridge to prevent it happening again. And the Federal Railroad Administration expressed concern about the condition of bridges generally in a wide-ranging review after the crash.

“The review was prompted by the agency’s perception that the bridge population was aging, traffic density and loads were increasing on many routes, and the consequences of a bridge failure could be catastrophic,” according to a report published in 1991, the same year as the crash.

From 1982 to 2008, records show there were 58 train accidents nationwide caused by the structural failure of a railroad bridge, causing nine injuries and about $26.5 million in damages.

State hires

As of July 2010, new federal rules require rail companies prepare bridge management programs — including annual inspections, maintenance inventories and more — that are made available to federal inspectors when asked. The Federal Railroad Administration can levy fines up to $100,000 for failure to comply.

Federal inspectors audit railroad bridge inspections done by the companies and personally perform observations of 225 to 250 bridges each year. Based on those CPUC calculations, it would take the California inspector 20 years to visit and observe all of the state’s estimated 5,000 bridges, if that was all he had to do. But in reality, it would take much longer because California’s inspector splits his time among 11 states, leaving the CPUC to conclude in its 2013 report that the feds “cannot provide adequate oversight.”

That shortfall prompted state regulators to hire their own bridge inspectors, and they have already designed a bridge evaluation form and experimented with performing inspections.

“Railroad bridges carry thousands of cars of hazardous materials and thousands of passengers daily,” said CPUC spokesman Christopher Chow. “The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has new, general bridge regulations … but employs only five inspectors for the entire U.S. The CPUC’s bridge inspectors will be able to augment the FRA’s efforts.”

Share...

    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...

      Berkeley Vice Mayor: more crude oil trains to cross Benicia Bridge enroute to Southern California

      [The Berkeley resolution: “Opposing transportation of hazardous materials along California waterways through densely populated areas, through the East Bay, and Berkeley]

      Several times over recent months, I have been urged to pay attention to a Santa Maria Refinery rail project in San Luis Obispo County.  Phillips 66 wants to import Bakken and tar-sands crude oil into their Santa Maria Refinery on trains with up to 80 tank cars per day.  Community activists there are organizing to oppose that project just as we are here in Benicia.  Until now, I have resisted paying much attention to their efforts.  I have been intentionally Valero-Benicia-focused, given my limited time and resources.

      But I was very interested to learn today that Berkeley Vice Mayor Linda Maio has crafted a resolution for the Berkeley City Council “Opposing transportation of hazardous materials along California waterways through densely populated areas, through the East Bay, and Berkeley.”  Vice Mayor Maio acknowledges that local regulation will not be easy: “Mitigating the impacts of transporting crude and other commodities by rail has been a challenge, as the railroads claim they are subject to federal law but not to California law.  They are asserting federal pre-emption and arguing that other agencies have no authority to mitigate the impacts.  However, this is not correct.  Every permitting agency — cities, counties, and air districts — has the authority to deny land use and other permits if the applicant refuses to mitigate impacts.”  She goes on to offer a number of steps the Berkeley Council can take, including the resolution mentioned above.

      An impressive effort.  We should take similar action here in Benicia.

      Downloading the Maio/Berkeley materials, I noticed maps and text describing Union Pacific tank cars traveling along the Capitol Corridor and right through Benicia to Berkeley and beyond: “The crude oil trains would enter northern California via 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.  The same tracks are used by Amtrak for passenger transport.”  (see p. 2 of 8)

      Capitol Corridor Route MapI really hope Vice Mayor Maio is NOT right about the route of these trains – in a brief search, I could not verify the route on the San Luis Obispo County website.  I am not certain, but it seems there might also be routes that pass southward through Stockton and then westward to Pittsburg and beyond, avoiding the Suisun Marsh and the Benicia Bridge.  But if Maio is right, Benicia is not only preparing for Valero’s 100 cars/day to stop and unload, but another 80 cars/day that would pass right through and over the Benicia Bridge, along the Carquinez Strait to the East Bay and beyond.  This is game-changing and highly significant to those of us who are primarily Benicia-focused.  The cumulative impacts of the crude by rail boom will be huge and many-faceted if we don’t band together statewide.

      Stay tuned.  I’ll keep you informed if I can get clear on the route the Santa Maria trains will travel.

      Roger Straw
      Editor, The Benicia Independent

      Share...