Train safety provisions included in U.S. transportation bill
By Crocker Stephenson, Dec. 2, 2015
The mammoth five-year federal transportation bill that lawmakers hope to send to President Barack Obama early next week includes provisions, championed by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), that would require railroads to share critical safety information with local communities.
“This legislation provides the transparency we’ve been begging and asking Canadian Pacific railroad for,” Milwaukee Common Council President Michael Murphy said during a news conference Wednesday outside a fire station at 100 W. Virginia St.
“It isn’t too much to ask a company that is using our public right of way to let us know if their bridges are safe and secure,” he said.
As if to illustrate Murphy’s point, a Canadian Pacific train pulling oil tankers rumbled across the bridge over S. 1st St. a few blocks to the north.
Milwaukee is in a rail corridor that ferries crude oil from North Dakota to refineries in metropolitan Chicago and beyond.
Since spring, Murphy and other city officials have been sparring with Canadian Pacific over its refusal to share with city engineers the results of its inspection of a rusty-looking bridge crossing W. Oregon St. at S. 1st St.
Canadian Pacific officials have insisted the bridge is safe, but they announced in August that the railroad plans to encase 13 of the bridge’s steel columns in concrete to protect them from further corrosion.
“Five to six months ago, the Milwaukee Common Council asked for information on bridges,” Ald. Terry Witkowski said. “We were greeted with silence.”
“With the stroke of a pen, the ball game has changed,” he said.
Concern over trains hauling potentially explosive fuel tankers through the heart of Milwaukee’s Fifth Ward increased last month when two petroleum-filled trains derailed in Wisconsin in a single week.
“Wisconsin first-responders should be applauded for their reaction to these derailments,” Baldwin said. “But railroad companies need to do more.”
According to Baldwin’s office, the bipartisan transportation bill contains several provisions pushed by the senator:
Transparency: A provision would require railroads to provide local officials with a public version of the most recent bridge inspection report
Real-time reporting: Currently, information about hazardous materials being carried through communities is available to first-responders only after an incident has occurred. A provision would require that information to be shared before a train carrying hazardous materials arrives in their jurisdiction.
“The thing we need is information,” Milwaukee Fire Chief Mark Rohlfing said. “So the more transparent our haulers become, the more prepared we can be.”
“Having the city have this information gives the Department of Public Works, our city engineer, access to information so that we can make an evaluation, so we can work with railroads to make sure we have safe rail crossings,” Mayor Tom Barrett said.
The roughly $300 billion transportation bill would also require the Department of Transportation to initiate a study on the appropriate level of insurance railroads hauling hazardous insurance should have, and it would ask the DOT to require that railroads improve their plans for responding to catastrophic oil discharges.
Repost from McClatchyNews [Editor: Note the significant section on bridge safety – “In downtown Milwaukee, Canadian Pacific’s oil trains cross a 99-year-old steel bridge over South 1st Street that shows visible signs of deterioration. Some of beams supporting the structure are so badly corroded at the base that you can see right through them. In Watertown, just west of the derailment site, the railroad crosses Main Street on a bridge with crumbling concrete supports embedded with its date of construction: 1906.” – RS]
Oil train safety concerns cast shadow over cross-border rail deal
• Merger would create largest railroad on continent
• Canadian Pacific, Norfolk Southern transport oil
• Derailments, bridges under scrutiny in Wisconsin
By Curtis Tate, November 25, 2015
WATERTOWN, WIS. – Concerns about the safety of crude oil trains loom over a proposed rail takeover that would create the largest rail system in North America.
Last week, Alberta-based Canadian Pacific made public its plan to acquire Virginia-based Norfolk Southern. The $28.4 billion deal would need to be approved by company shareholders and federal regulators, a process that could take at least 18 months.
The railroads are key players in the transportation of crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale region to East Coast refineries. Currently, Canadian Pacific transfers the shipments to Norfolk Southern at Chicago. The combined company could offer a seamless path the entire distance to the East Coast.
Though both companies have so far escaped the most serious crude by rail incidents involving spills, fires and mass evacuations, they are likely to face fresh scrutiny of their safety practices and relationships with communities if they agree to a deal.
In Wisconsin, the railroad has clashed with environmental groups and elected officials over the condition of its aging bridges. And in spite of calls from members of Congress and the Federal Railroad Administration, the railroad refuses to share its bridge inspection documents with local officials, citing “security concerns.”
“I’ve reached out to (Canadian Pacific) personally to try to get them to be better neighbors,” said Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis. “The response hasn’t been that good.”
Two Canadian Pacific trains derailed earlier this month in Watertown, a city of 24,000 about an hour west of Milwaukee.
The first occurred on Nov. 8 when 13 cars of an eastbound oil train bound from North Dakota to Philadelphia derailed and spilled about 500 gallons. About 35 homes were evacuated for more than a day. Then on Nov. 11, a second train derailed at the same spot as the first. Though no one was injured, the back-to-back incidents shook residents.
“If safety was really important, you wouldn’t have two trains derail in one town in one week,” said Sarah Zarling, a mother of five who lives a few blocks from the track and has become an activist on the issue.
THE FEDERAL SURFACE TRANSPORTATION BOARD, WHICH REVIEWS RAILROAD MERGERS, HAS BEEN SYMPATHETIC TO CONCERNS FROM THE PUBLIC ABOUT THE IMPACTS OF INDUSTRY CONSOLIDATION.
In a statement, Canadian Pacific spokesman Andy Cummings said the railroad was the safest in North America for 12 of the past 14 years.
“It is good business for us as a railroad to operate safely,” he said, “and the statistics clearly show we are doing that.”
In downtown Milwaukee, Canadian Pacific’s oil trains cross a 99-year-old steel bridge over South 1st Street that shows visible signs of deterioration. Some of beams supporting the structure are so badly corroded at the base that you can see right through them.
In Watertown, just west of the derailment site, the railroad crosses Main Street on a bridge with crumbling concrete supports embedded with its date of construction: 1906.
Cummings said both bridges are safe and that their appearance doesn’t indicate their ability to safely carry rail traffic. Still, he said the company is working on a website that would explain its bridge management plan and offer a way for the public to raise concerns.
“We do understand that we have an obligation to reassure the public when questions arise about our bridges,” he said.
Railroads carry out their own bridge inspections under the supervision of the Federal Railroad Administration. In September, Administrator Sarah Feinberg sent a letter to railroads urging them to be more open about their bridge inspections and conditions.
Addressing a rail safety advisory panel in early November, Feinberg said her phone was “ringing off the hook” with concerned calls from the public and lawmakers.
“They are frustrated, and frequently they are scared,” she said, “because the absence of information in this case leaves them imagining the worst.”
$340 Million – Amount of settlement for survivors of 2013 Quebec oil train disaster. Canadian Pacific was the only company that declined to contribute.
Much of the concern about the condition of rail infrastructure stems from series of derailments involving crude oil and ethanol. Including the Watertown derailment this month, there have been 10 derailments with spills or fires this year in North America.
In the worst example, an unattended train carrying Bakken crude oil rolled away and derailed in the center of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July 2013. The subsequent fires and explosions leveled dozens of buildings and killed 47 people.
Canadian Pacific was the only company among roughly two dozen that declined to contribute to a $340 million settlement fund for the survivors. The railroad denies any responsibility in the disaster, though it transported the derailed train from North Dakota to Montreal, where a smaller carrier took control.
While the railroad last month dropped its opposition to the settlement, it could still be in court. A Chicago law firm has threatened to bring wrongful death lawsuits against the railroad in the next 18 months.
Cummings said the company “will continue to defend itself in any future lawsuits.”
While it’s not clear what issues will ultimately decide the fate of proposed merger, the federal Surface Transportation Board, which reviews such transactions, has been sympathetic to concerns from the public about the impacts of industry consolidation.
In 2000, the three-member panel rejected a similar cross-border bid by Canadian National and BNSF Railway to create what would have been the largest North American railroad at the time. The deal failed partly because a series of mergers in the 1990s had created a colossal rail service meltdown.
Because of those problems, and complaints from shippers and members of Congress, the Surface Transportation Board imposed a moratorium on new railroad mergers. There hasn’t been a major rail deal since.
But speaking to a conference of transportation companies in Florida this month, Canadian Pacific CEO Hunter Harrison sounded confident that shippers would not oppose the deal and that the decision to press forward was largely in the hands of shareholders.
“If the shareholders want it, it’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s just that simple.”
New Investigative Report Documents Threat from Oil Trains on Nation’s Neglected Rail Infrastructure
With a 5,000% increase in oil train traffic, Waterkeepers across the U.S. identify significant areas of concern with 114 railway bridges along known and potential routes of explosive oil trains
Tina Posterli, and Eddie Scher, Tuesday Nov 10, 2015
Waterkeeper Alliance, ForestEthics, Riverkeeper and a national network of Waterkeeper organizations released a new investigative report today called DEADLY CROSSING: Neglected Bridges & Exploding Oil Trains exploring the condition of our nation’s rail infrastructure and how it is being stressed by oil train traffic. From July to September 2015, Waterkeepers from across the country documented potential deficiencies of 250 railway bridges in 15 states along known and potential routes of explosive oil trains, capturing the state of this often neglected infrastructure in their communities.
The Waterkeepers identified areas of serious concern on 114 bridges, nearly half of those observed. Photos and video footage of the bridges inspected show signs of significant stress and decay, such as rotted, cracked, or crumbling foundations, and loose or broken beams. Waterkeepers were also present when crude oil trains passed and observed flexing, slumping and vibrations that crumbled concrete.
“Waterkeepers boarded their patrol boats to uncover what is happening to the structural integrity of our nation’s railway bridges, a responsibility our federal government has shirked,” said Marc Yaggi, executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance. “People deserve to know the state of this infrastructure and the risks oil trains pose as they rumble through our communities.”
This effort was initiated out of concern for the threat posed by the 5,000 percent increase in oil train traffic since 2008. Oil train traffic increases both the strain in rail infrastructure, as well as the likelihood of a rail bridge defect leading to an oil train derailment, spill, explosion and fire.
“Half the bridges we looked at have potentially serious safety problems,” says Matt Krogh, ForestEthics extreme oil campaign director. “There are 100,000 rail bridges in the U.S. – any one of them could be the next deadly crossing. Oil trains are rolling over crumbling bridges and we can’t wait for the next derailment, spill, and explosion to act.”
A review of rail bridge safety standards revealed that the federal government cedes authority and oversight of inspections and repairs to railway bridge owners. Overly broad federal law, lax regulations, and dangerously inadequate inspections and oversight compound the threat from oil trains. The 2008 federal law and subsequent Department of Transportation standards regulating rail bridge safety leaves responsibility for determining load limits, safety inspections, and maintenance with rail bridge owners.
“Do truckers get to inspect their own trucks? Do you get to inspect your own car? Of course not. So it’s insane, and completely unacceptable, that the rail industry gets to inspect its own infrastructure while moving cargo that is of such enormous risk to American citizens and the environment,” said Riverkeeper Boat Captain John Lipscomb.
Oil trains directly threaten the life and safety of 25 million Americans living inside the 1 mile evacuation blast zone in the case of an oil train fire, and the drinking water supplies for tens of millions more, says the report. The groups are calling for the federal government and rail industry to immediately inspect all rail bridges, share safety information with emergency responders and the public, and stop oil train traffic on any bridge with known safety problems.