Tag Archives: Bomb Trains

Trump admin’s stunning explanation for easing up on oil trains: Safety no excuse for “inhibiting market growth”

Safety Can’t Be a ‘Pretext’ for Regulating Unsafe Oil Trains, Says Trump Admin

Desmog, by Justin Mikulka, May 20, 2020
Lac-Megantic oil train explosion
Train burning in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Credit: Transportation Safety Board of Canada, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The federal agency overseeing the safe transport of hazardous materials released a stunning explanation of its May 11 decision striking down a Washington state effort to regulate trains carrying volatile oil within its borders. A state cannot use “safety as a pretext for inhibiting market growth,” wrote Paul J. Roberti, the chief counsel for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

The statement appeared in the Trump administration’s justification for overruling Washington’s oil train regulation, which was challenged by crude-producing North Dakota and oil industry lobbying groups. The Washington rule seeks to limit oil vapor pressure unloaded from trains to less than 9 pounds per square inch (psi) in an attempt to reduce the likelihood that train derailments lead to the now-familiar fireballs and explosions accompanying trains transporting volatile oil.

Roberti wrote: “Proponents of the law insist Washington State has a legitimate public interest to protect its citizens from oil train fires and explosions, but in the context of the transportation of crude oil by rail, a State cannot use safety as a pretext for inhibiting market growth or instituting a de facto ban on crude oil by rail within its borders.”

With this statement, PHMSA is codifying what has been clear for some time at the regulatory agencies responsible for overseeing the transportation of hazardous materials by rail: that is, profits take priority over safety.

Rail Industry ‘Pre-emption’ and Safety Under Trump

A year ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), PHMSA‘s parent agency, invoked the same legal argument, known as “pre-emption,” to overrule state efforts to require at minimum two-person crews for operating freight trains. As part of the explanation for that decision, the DOT‘s Federal Railroad Administration announced that it was adopting a policy of deregulation.

DOT’s approach to achieving safety improvements begins with a focus on removing unnecessary barriers and issuing voluntary guidance, rather than regulations that could stifle innovation,” wrote the agency.

A regulatory agency announcing a broad deregulatory agenda was shocking. However, this latest move openly declares that, while Washington state may have an interest in protecting its citizens from “oil train fires and explosions,” that concern should not get in the way of the oil industry’s ability to ship more of its product by rail through the state, apparently even if that increases the risk of oil train fires and explosions to Washington residents. This logic reaches a new level of prioritizing profits over people as regulatory practice.


Historically, or at least, theoretically, government has based regulations on cost-benefit analyses, weighing the costs of complying for the regulated entities against the benefits, such as lives saved or accidents prevented, as a result of the new rules. Here, the DOT‘s new regulatory approach appears to weigh primarily the benefits for the rail and oil industries while downplaying the potential cost in human lives.

However, these industries did argue about costs to get to this point. As DeSmog has repeatedly documented, lowering the vapor pressure of oil below 9 psi is possible through a process called stabilization, which makes oil less volatile and less likely to ignite. Conditioning the oil in this way before loading on trains would require the oil industry to invest in stabilization equipment, which the industry has argued is not economically feasible.

In 2014, Myron Goforth, the president of Dew Point Control LLC, a manufacturer of stabilization equipment, put the situation in simple terms. “It’s very easy to stabilize the crude — it just takes money,” Goforth told Reuters. “The producer doesn’t want to pay for it if he can ship it without doing it.”

DOT‘s May 11 decision notes that “compliance with the [Washington] law can only be accomplished by (1) pretreating the crude oil prior to loading the tank car.” Exactly: Making the oil safe to ship on long, heavy trains through small towns and large cities requires stabilizing, or conditioning, before loading it into tank cars (just as the industry does before loading oil in pipelines or on ocean-going tankers, at least in Texas). DOT makes no argument about how companies could comply with the Washington law, outside of trying to avoid passing through the state entirely or using a different transportation mode other than trains.

A particularly telling clue behind the DOT‘s conclusion that the Washington law should be pre-empted is found in the commenters whose opinions the agency is highlighting: “In light of the infrastructure, equipment, and other logistical issues, the commenters have concluded that pretreating is economically infeasible or unrealistic.”

In this case, the “commenters” the DOT is referencing are members of the oil industry and its lobbyists, including the refinery company Hess Corporation, Marathon Petroleum, the American Petroleum Institute (API), American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, and the North Dakota Petroleum Council.

At an oil-by-rail conference in 2016, an API official described the industry’s attitude about the prospect of requiring oil stabilization for rail transport: “We in the oil and gas industry see this as a very dangerous conversation.”


In December 2017, Trump’s Federal Railroad Administration repealed an Obama-era rule requiring modern braking systems on oil trains despite overwhelming evidence that these systems improve rail safety. Sarah Feinberg, former head of the Federal Railroad Administration, offered important context about rail industry opposition to that rule.

The science is there, the data is there,” Feinberg said of the efforts to require updated rail braking systems on oil trains. “Their argument is, despite that data, [they] don’t want to spend the money on it.”

That seems to be the rule for overseeing rail safety under the Trump administration. If a rule costs industry money to improve safety and protect the public from oil train fires and explosions, the industry will push back against its regulators, who appear to be pushovers, especially but not exclusively under Trump.

The alternative of prohibiting oil transportation by rail, because it is apparently too dangerous and too costly to do safely, is never even considered.

Ignoring the Science

The latest decision on the Washington state case continues a trend under Trump to overlook robust science when regulating oil by rail. However, you might not know it from the comments of this decision’s supporters.

PHMSA used a single, flawed study from Sandia National Laboratories to support its conclusion that limiting the vapor pressure of oil moved by rail is unnecessary — while the agency ignored all the other established research on vapor pressure, volatility, and ignitability of crude oil.

The North Dakota Congressional delegation opened its statement praising the May 11 decision with lip service to science: “We thank the administration for doing the right thing by putting sound, scientific evidence above partisan politics.”

In the same vein, Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, told the Associated Press, “There is nothing unusual about the volatility of Bakken crude oil,” a claim the North Dakota attorney general has also made to argue against the Washington vapor pressure law.

And yet these statements don’t stand up to scrutiny. In my book Bomb Trains: How Industry Greed and Regulatory Failure Put the Public at Risk, I present the evidence that Bakken crude oil’s volatility is higher than other regions and that this factor makes a difference. This crude oil is much more volatile than traditional crude oil from Louisiana or Texas, and that volatility, along with other factors, makes it more likely to ignite in oil train derailments.

WATCH: Justin Mikulka, Sept 2015: The Science of Bomb Trains

As I noted at the time of its publishing, the Sandia Labs study is deeply flawed and does not study the actual issue of oil igniting during train derailments.

As for whether Bakken oil’s volatility is “unusual,” a Wall Street Journal analysis found in 2014 that “Crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale formation contains several times the combustible gases as oil from elsewhere.” These combustible gases are what give the Bakken oil much higher vapor pressure levels than most other crude oils from the U.S.

The combustible gases in the oil are natural gas liquids like butane and propane, which is why the oil is so volatile.

At the same time that the oil industry tries to say Bakken oil isn’t more volatile than other oils, it argues that Bakken oil’s value lies in these extra natural gas liquids. Stabilizing the oil by removing these gases from the oil not only would cost the industry money but the resulting oil would be worth less to the industry.

The DOT notes as much in its recent decision: “These higher vapor pressure hazardous materials, such as butane, ethane, and other natural gases, are deemed essential and valuable components of Bakken crude.”

The oil industry has no argument to make on a scientific basis here, only an economic one. Reducing the vapor pressure of oil by removing gases like butane and ethane makes it less volatile and less likely to ignite. That is established by research. But the industry has repeatedly argued that removing these flammable gases from the oil would make it less valuable, which is one of its justifications for not stabilizing the oil.

A Second Bakken Bomb Train Boom Could Be on the Way

The only things that have kept the estimated 25 million North Americans living along railroad blast zones safer from dangerous oil trains is the success of activists who have blocked new oil-by-rail projects and oil industry economics. Because transporting oil by rail is more expensive than by pipeline or ocean-going tankers, the industry moves much less oil on trains when oil prices are low.


Oil train protesters in Albany, New York, in May 2016. Credit: Justin Mikulka

With current oil prices at record lows in the U.S. and Canada, it doesn’t make economic sense to move oil by rail, which is good news for the millions of people living along the rails.

However, a current legal battle over the Dakota Access pipeline could make moving Bakken oil by rail a major mode of transportation, perhaps regardless of oil price.

A judge recently set a hearing to review the permitting process for the controversial pipeline, currently moving 500,000 barrels of crude per day. Depending on the outcome, that hearing could result in the judge vacating the pipeline’s permits, shutting it down and diverting all of that Bakken oil back onto the rails in a big way, at levels that would surpass the records of 2014. The Obama administration passed oil train safety regulations in 2015 in response to the fiery accidents and oil spills that coincided with the boom in oil train traffic.

The Trump administration has steadily worked to roll back the modest progress of those safety rules, with the last one, on vapor pressure for oil by rail, withdrawn from the rulemaking process the very same day the DOT pre-empted Washington’s vapor pressure rule.

Now, an essentially unregulated oil-by-rail industry poses a real risk to public safety and the environment. With the Trump administration shooting down Washinton’s rule and repealing previous safety regulations, the risks of moving volatile oil by rail are essentially the same as in 2013. That was the same year a train hauling Bakken oil exploded in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, and killed 47 people.

Today, Bakken oil is just as volatile — and dangerous. The trains pulling upwards of a hundred cars of oil have the same outdated braking systems. Regulators have no requirements overseeing train track integrity or wear (the two latest oil train derailments and fires in Canada were likely because of track failures). There are no regulations on train length. And while rail companies have phased in a newer class of tank cars, those cars have ruptured in every major derailment involving oil and ethanol trains.

The accident in Lac-Mégantic happened almost seven years ago. An early Wall Street Journal article after the accident quoted an oil industry executive who said, “Crude oil doesn’t explode like that.”

Which is true in most cases. But Bakken crude does explode like that because it is full of gases like butane, is highly volatile, and has much higher vapor pressure than most other crude oils.

While that doesn’t have to be true, the Trump administration is taking steps to make sure it is.

Main image: Train burning in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Credit: Transportation Safety Board of CanadaCC BYNCND 2.0

The Canadian Government is Blowing Up Bomb Trains for Practice

Repost from Vice News

ViceNews header 2016-03-18
Photo via the Defence Research and Development Canada – Centre for Security Science

The Canadian Government is Blowing Up Bomb Trains for Practice

By Hilary Beaumont, March 18, 2016 | 9:51 am

Two and a half years after a train carrying crude oil ran off the tracks in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec and exploded, killing 47 people, the Canadian government set a tanker on fire and pretended to run a train off its tracks as practice in case it happens again.

On July 6, 2013, an unmanned train carrying ultra-flammable western crude plummeted into the downtown of 6,000-resident Lac-Mégantic, where it erupted in flames and flattened everything in its path. The Lac-Mégantic tragedy spurred a debate in Canada and the US about the safety of so-called “bomb trains”, and reinvigorated the discussion about shipping oil across Canada.

Exercise Vulcan. Photo via the Defence Research and Development Canada – Centre for Security Science

The debate has become a heated one, and largely comes down to whether to build large pipeline projects amid an uptick in the amount of volatile crude oil moved by rail. Both pipeline and oil by rail proponents argue their methods of transport are safe. Meanwhile, environmental groups argue both methods inevitably lead to spills or explosions, and that the oil should stay in the ground, while Canada should beef up its focus on renewable energy.

According to Transport Canada’s own data, crude oil moved by rail has increased dramatically in Canada over the past decade, from only four carloads in 2005 to 174,000 carloads in 2014.

In the case of Lac Megantic, an investigation showed a complex series of errors allowed the disaster to happen.

The goal of the recent train simulation, which used flammable liquid common in firefighter training rather than actual crude, was to improve emergency preparedness and public trust around the movement of crude and other dangerous goods by rail.

Exercise Vulcan. Photo via the Defence Research and Development Canada – Centre for Security Science

Firefighters arrived on the scene of 11 smoking tanks that had derailed. They were taught to identify the contents of the tanks and decide when it was better not to intervene, as that could make the situation worse. If tackling the fire directly, the firefighters were told to apply foam and water spray to extinguish the flames.

It’s taken two-and-a-half years to start upgrading the procedures around emergency response to train derailments involving crude, and they’re not done yet. Exercise Vulcan, as the simulation was dubbed, was a test run of those new procedures, and Transport Canada hopes to use the training in other parts of the country in the future.

“Better late than never,” one industry expert told VICE News in reaction to Transport Canada running the train derailment simulation last weekend.

It’s too soon to tell whether Lac-Mégantic has sparked real safety upgrades in the rail industry, transportation industry consultant Ian Naish said. “They’re replacing tank cars, [but] they’re doing it slowly.

“Speed of the oil trains is a big issue to me,” he continued. “I’d recommend they take another look at the maximum speed at which a train should operate because the two that went off the rails in Gogama last year were operating at around 40 miles per hour, which is 60 or 70 kilometres an hour, and since all the tank cars failed, that obviously was too fast.”

A photo of the aftermath of the Gogama derailment. Photo via the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

Just over a year ago, a crude oil train exploded in a fireball and derailed near the town of Gogama in northern Ontario. No injuries or deaths were reported in the March 7, 2015 explosion. It took three days to extinguish the flames.

At the time, it was the second CN train to derail near Gogama in a three-week period. Both incidents resulted in spilled crude oil.

The tankers that derailed in both Gogama accidents were the same type of Class 111 tanks that ruptured in Lac Megantic. The Transportation Safety Board, an independent agency tasked with investigating transportation disasters in Canada, has warned for years that Class 111 tanks are unsafe because they aren’t reinforced and tend to break open when they crash.

“It will be very silly for everybody, not only Quebec — any province, and any state in the United States — not to learn from what happened in Lac-Mégantic. What happened showed so many voids in the system, and so much lack of important information.”

But it won’t be until after May 1, 2017 that the notorious Class 111 tank cars — which are most susceptible to damage when they crash — will no longer be able to carry crude. Phasing in more crash-resistant tank cars will mean the Class 111s will be off the rails “as soon as practically possible,” Transport Canada spokesperson Natasha Gauthier told VICE News.

After the disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Transport Canada says it introduced strict new rules, including a two-person minimum for crews on trains carrying dangerous goods, a requirement for railway companies on federally-regulated tracks to hold valid certificates, new speed limits for trains carrying dangerous goods.

In the US, though, there’s been pushback from the railroad industry, with one representative saying there is “simply no safety case” for two-person crews.

Exercise Vulcan. Photo via the Defence Research and Development Canada – Centre for Security Science

Transport Canada also introduced more frequent audits, better sharing of information with municipalities, and increased track inspections. Plus, the agency amended the Railway Safety Act, researched crude for a better understanding of the volatile oil, and made it mandatory for some railways to submit training plans to the agency.

Since Lac-Mégantic, one improvement is that local first responders are now more aware of what dangerous goods, including crude, are travelling through their communities, Naish added.

And according to an engineering professor who witnessed first-hand the scene after the Lac-Mégantic explosion, while the railway industry is ramping up safety measures, the risk of increased shipments of oil by rail could balance those out, meaning it may not actually be any safer since Lac-Mégantic.

“Is it enough?” Rosa Galvez-Cloutier told VICE News when asked about the improved safety measures. “That’s hard to say. Zero risk doesn’t exist.”

Another major concern for Galvez-Cloutier is that when government and industry look at risk and safety, they tend do so project by project.

“Who is evaluating the big picture? Who is evaluating the whole thing?” She asked. “Government needs to put more interest and focus on the cumulative impacts of transporting dangerous goods.”

Exercise Vulcan. Photo via the Defence Research and Development Canada – Centre for Security Science

That debate is especially hot in Quebec, where the Lac-Mégantic explosion occurred. A recent poll of Quebec residents found they aren’t as likely as the rest of Canada to trust either pipelines or oil by rail.

According to a study by the Fraser Institute published last August, pipelines are 4.5 times safer than rail for moving oil — the rate of incidents for pipelines is 0.049 incidents per million barrels of oil moved, while that rate is 0.227 per million barrels of oil for trains.

“It will be very silly for everybody, not only Quebec — any province, and any state in the United States — not to learn from what happened in Lac-Mégantic. What happened showed so many voids in the system, and so much lack of important information,” Galvez-Cloutier said.

When asked if he would rather have a pipeline or a train carrying crude through his backyard, Naish laughed and said “Well I’d rather not live in the neighborhood, personally.”

“In the ideal world, the rail lines and the pipelines would avoid all populated areas all the time.”

Exercise Vulcan. Photo via the Defence Research and Development Canada – Centre for Security Science

New Oil Train Safety Regs Focus on Accident Response, Not Prevention

Repost from Center for Biological Diversity

CenterForBiolDiv_logoNew Oil Train Safety Regs Focus on Accident Response, Not Prevention

Long Phase-out of Hazardous Cars, Inadequate Speed Limits Leave Communities at Risk of Explosive Derailments

For Immediate Release, December 7, 2015
Contact: Jared Margolis, (802) 310-4054

WASHINGTON— A new transportation bill signed by President Obama includes provisions intended to improve the safety of oil trains, but leaves puncture-prone tank cars in service for years and fails to address the speed, length and weight of trains that experts point to as the leading causes of explosive derailments. The bill upgrades safety features on oil train tank cars and requires railroads to provide emergency responders with real-time information about when and where dangerous oil cargoes are being transported but doesn’t do enough to prevent oil train accidents, which have risen sharply in recent years.

“While these regulations improve our ability to prepare for oil train disasters they do virtually nothing to prevent them from ever occurring in the first place,” said Jared Margolis, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity who focuses on the impacts of energy development on endangered species. “Until we dramatically reduce the speed and length of these bomb trains it’s only a matter of time before the next explosive derailment sends fireballs rolling through one of our communities.”

The new regulations will require all oil train tank cars to include fire-resistant ceramic coatings and protections for protruding top fittings. The final rule issued by federal regulators in May only required oil trains with 35 loaded oil tank cars or 20-car blocks of oil tank cars to implement the new standards, and would not have required the ceramic blankets or top fitting protections for all retrofitted cars.

But experts say even the protective measures included in the new transportation regulations signed into law on Friday will do little to prevent a spill if a train derails at speeds faster than 18 mph, and oil trains are permitted to travel at 40 mph to 50 mph. And the new regulations do not require the phase-out of dangerous puncture-prone tank cars to begin until 2018, and allows them to remain in service until 2029.

“It’s irresponsible to continue to allow these bomb trains to roll through the middle of our communities and across some our most pristine landscapes,” said Margolis. “We need to quit pretending we can make these dangerous trains safe and simply ban them altogether.”

Congress has directed the U.S. Department of Transportation to continue requiring notifications to states of train routes and frequencies so communities can better prepare to respond to train derailments, explosions and oil spills. However, the new regulations do nothing to remedy the track infrastructure problems, or the excessive length and weight of oil trains, cited as leading causes of derailments. Further, it remains unclear whether the public will have access to information about these hazards.

“Keeping information on oil trains from public scrutiny is outrageous, and only serves to protect the corporate interests that care little about the risk to the homes, schools and wild areas that these trains threaten,” said Margolis. “We need to keep these trains off the tracks and keep these dangerous fossil fuels in the ground, rather than keeping the public in the dark.”

Background 

The National Transportation Safety Board has repeatedly found that current tank cars are prone to puncture on impact, spilling oil and often triggering destructive fires and explosions. But federal regulators have ignored the safety board’s official recommendation to stop shipping crude oil in the hazardous tank cars. Recent derailments and explosions have made clear that even the newer tank cars, known as CPC-1232s, are not significantly safer, often puncturing at low speeds.

The recent surge in U.S. and Canadian oil production, much of it from Bakken shale and Alberta tar sands, has led to a more than 4,000 percent increase in crude oil shipped by rail since 2005, primarily in trains with as many as 120 oil cars that are more than 1.5 miles long. The result has been oil spills, destructive fires, and explosions when oil trains have derailed. More oil spilled in train accidents just in 2013 than in the 38 years from 1975 to 2012 combined.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 900,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

First National Conference on Oil Train Threats – excellent report by Justin Mikulka

Repost from DeSmogBlog
[Editor:  Many thanks to Justin Mikulka for this excellent report on “Oil Train Response 2015,” nicely summarizing the important issues as well as the event.   Great photo below – click on it to enlarge so you can play Where’s Waldo.  🙂  For a local media report and some good links, see also my earlier posting.  – RS]

“We Need Not Be Polite” Hears First National Conference On Oil Train Threats

By Justin Mikulka • Wednesday, November 25, 2015 – 03:58
oil train conference
Oil Train Response 2015, 1st national conference on oil train threats, 11/14-15/15, Pittsburgh

On November 12th, I boarded a train headed to Pittsburgh, PA to attend the first national independent gathering focused on the topic of oil trains. The trip would take me through Philadelphia where an Amtrak train crashed in May resulting in eight fatalities and over 200 injuries.

There is general consensus that the accident would have been avoided if positive train control technology had been in place. In 2008, Congress mandated that positive train control be installed by the end of 2015. However, the railroads failed to do this and were recently given a three to five year extension by Congress after the rail companies threatened to shut down rail service if the mandate were enforced.

It is a reminder of the power of the rail lobbyists. Another example of this power is currently playing out in Congress. Earlier this year, the Senate voted to raise the amount of money that could go to victims of accidents such as the one in May. However, rail lobbyists and members of Congress are working to strip this change out of pending legislation.

Having covered the topic of oil trains for the past two years, none of this is surprising. The rail and oil lobbyists have been very effective at weakening new oil-by-rail regulations and achieving huge delays for any actual implementation of these changes.

In 2013, an oil train full of Bakken crude oil derailed in Lac-Megantic resulting in a fire that killed 47 people. The existing regulations will allow trains like the one in Lac-Megantic to roll on the rails until 2023.

These known risks and lack of regulations have created new activists across the continent and the Oil Train Response 2015 conference was the first time they have all come together in one place to discuss the issue and organize together. The event was sponsored and organized by The Heinz FoundationFracTracker and ForestEthics.

The first day of the conference was designed to inform the attendees about various aspects of oil-by-rail transportation and included presentations from first responders, politicians, Riverkeepers, legal experts and railroad safety consultant Fred Millar.

What You Are Up Against

Ben Stuckart is president of the Spokane city council, a city currently seeing 15 oil trains a week and facing the potential of as many as 137 a week by 2020 by some estimates. During his presentation, Stuckart described a trip he took to Washington, D.C. to meet with Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to express his concerns about the oil trains.

“We sit down and we’re talking to him and he’s like ‘well here is what you are up against.’ He goes, ‘My first day in office.  BNSF and Union Pacific just showed up and walked into our office.’ And he asked up front what’s going on, I don’t have an appointment. ‘Oh there is an open door policy.’

The railroads have an open door policy. Do you know how long it took for me to get an appointment with transportation secretary Foxx?”

This isn’t the only time Secretary Foxx learned what we “are up against.”

Earlier this year, Reuters reported that when the White House was finalizing the new regulations, Secretary Foxx requested that the regulations address the volatility of Bakken crude oil. His request was denied.

Stuckart’s recounting of Foxx’s candid explanation of the reality of regulation in Washington, D.C. is an excellent example of the power of the industry, and provides insight into why these trains continue to run despite the known risks.

We Need Not Be Polite

Much of the morning session of the first day of the conference was devoted to emergency response, featuring three different presentations on the topic. A bit later, rail safety consultant Fred Millar took to the podium and wasted no time in getting everyone’s attention. With the earlier emergency response presenters flanking him on either side of the podium, Millar did not pull any punches.

“We need not be polite with the railroads and first responders,” Millar said. And then he proceeded to point out what a farce the idea of emergency response planning is regarding Bakken oil trains.

“It’s a lie,” Millar said as he showed a slide of emergency responders operating fire hoses standing very near a black rail tank car that was on fire. Millar noted that these are public relations efforts meant to calm the public, but the reality of a Bakken oil train accident is that everyone within a half mile is evacuated and the train is allowed to burn itself out because it is too dangerous for first responders to approach. Often the fires last for days.

Millar’s presentation was enthusiastically received by the conference audience. As he delivered one of his many hard-hitting lines to applause, an audience member could be heard saying, “He’s like a preacher up there!” However, as repeatedly noted in his presentation, his opinion is that very little is being done to address the risks of oil-by-rail transportation.

They Are Our Children

Things got a bit heated in the question and answer session following Millar’s presentation. One point of contention was that the first responders maintained that they need to keep information about oil trains secret so as to not help out “the bad guys” — an idea not well received by the many people in the audience living near oil train tracks.

Raymond DeMichiei, Pittsburgh’s Deputy Coordinator of Emergency Management, sparked the biggest outcry when he stated that he didn’t see why “people need to know how many daycare centers are within the blast zone.” Among the responses was a woman yelling, “They are our children!”

As the session came to a close, a frustrated DeMichiei said, “Get ’em off the rails. I’ll be a happy guy.”  It was one point that everyone in the room could agree on.

FRA Administrator Grateful For Luck

A week before the conference, an ethanol train derailed in Wisconsin and spilled ethanol into the Mississippi River. The next day, an oil train derailed and spilled oil in a residential neighborhood in Wisconsin. On the first day of the conference, news broke that an oil train derailed near Philadelphia, although there was no spill.

Sarah Feinberg, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, commented on the accidents in Wisconsin saying, “We feel we got really lucky.” When I pointed out on Twitter that luck is currently a big part of the oil train safety plan, she responded.

While it is true that regulators are taking many steps to improve safety, it is also true that the oil and rail industries are working hard against any real improvements to safety. The dangerous oil is not being stabilized. The unsafe tank cars will be on the rails for at least eight more years. Modernized braking systems are years away and the industry is fighting that as well. And trains continue to run through many large cities.

On my train ride home from the conference, I saw many of the signature black tank cars on the rails. Some were carrying liquid petroleum gas, some ethanol and at least one was a unit train of oil cars (although likely empty as it was traveling West). The potential of an accident involving a commuter train and an oil train didn’t seem far fetched.

View from Amtrak train, photo by Justin Mikulka.

A National Movement Begins

The people gathered in Pittsburgh don’t want to rely on luck to protect their communities. They are committed to fighting for real rail safety, and they were clearly energized by this event. As Ben Stuckart said, “This is so awesome. I haven’t seen this big of a group about this very specific issue since I’ve been working on it the last four years.”

And that is good news for the 25 million people currently living within bomb train blast zones. Because if there is one lesson learned from the long delay over the implementation of positive train control, it is that this battle is likely to be a long and difficult effort.

Blog image credit: Paul Anderson