Tag Archives: Donner Pass

KQED: As More Crude Oil Rolls In, a Push for Better Track Inspection

Repost from KQED Science
[Editor: Excellent Mina Kim audio interview with Tony Bizjak below.  New information on Union Pacific derailment frequency, bridge inspection and other issues.  – RS]

As More Crude Oil Rolls In, a Push for Better Track Inspection

By Mina Kim and Molly Samuel | KQED Science | October 22, 2014 
Union Pacific owns the tracks that would deliver crude oil to the Valero refinery in Benicia. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)
Union Pacific owns the tracks that would deliver crude oil to the Valero refinery in Benicia. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

Shipments of crude oil by rail are expected to increase in the Bay Area and the rest of the state in the near future. BNSF Railways is already transporting crude oil into Richmond, including the kind of oil that exploded from a derailment and killed 47 people in a Quebec town last year.

In response to concerns about the risks of crude by rail, the state’s other large rail company, Union Pacific, began to boost its rail inspection program by dispatching vehicles with lasers that can find tiny track imperfections, as the Sacramento Bee reports:

The new cars will patrol the main mountain routes into the state, Union Pacific officials said. Northern California sites will include Donner Pass, the Feather River Canyon and grades outside Dunsmuir. The state has designated all those areas high hazards for derailments.

The Bee’s Tony Bizjack spoke with Mina Kim about the program, which began last month. Bizjack explained that Union Pacific is particularly worried about California’s mountain passes because they’re considered more high-hazard areas, “often because they’re curving, they’re on slopes, and they have to deal with more extreme weather,” he said.

Bizjak rode on one of the track inspection vehicles. He said they’re equipped with ultrasound to look into the rails to find weaknesses and lasers to measure variations in rail height and alignment.

In the last five years, Union Pacific has had about 180 derailments in California, Bizjack said. “Derailments are surprisingly frequent, but generally very minor,” he said. “Most of those derailments, however, the train cars ended up standing up, not falling over.”

About half of all derailments are caused by track problems, said Bizjack. Others are caused by human and equipments errors. “So tracks are important, that’s sort of the front-line of defense — PUC and FRA think — in reducing the chance these new crude oil shipments can derail, explode.”

Union Pacific is not yet bringing volatile Bakken crude to California. But there are plans in the works for Union Pacific to bring crude oil both to and through the Bay Area, Bizjak explains. A project at the Valero refinery in Benicia would bring two 50-car trains a day through Sacramento and along the I-80 corridor. Another proposal in Santa Maria, by Phillips 66, would bring trains through Sacramento, the East Bay, San Jose and down the coast.

“If you ask anybody in the Office of Emergency Services here in California, or first responders, fire departments, there is a real level of concern about the safety with more crude oil coming in,” Bizjak said.

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    Union Pacific boosts rail inspections in high-hazard mountain passes

    Repost from The Sacramento Bee
    [Editor: See video of reporter Tony Bizjak’s ride on the inspection car here.  – RS]

    Union Pacific boosts rail inspections in high-hazard mountain passes

    By Tony Bizjak, 10/19/2014
    Mike Stoddard oversees the operation of Union Pacific Railroad’s EC-4 as it makes its way out of the Roseville yard on Oct. 6 in Roseville. The EC-4 is a 96-ton, 82-foot-long rolling track inspection car which travels 800-1500 miles a week making sure that heavily used railroad tracks are in good working order.
    Mike Stoddard oversees the operation of Union Pacific Railroad’s EC-4 as it makes its way out of the Roseville yard on Oct. 6 in Roseville. The EC-4 is a 96-ton, 82-foot-long rolling track inspection car which travels 800-1500 miles a week making sure that heavily used railroad tracks are in good working order. Randy Pench

    Faced with public concern about the risks of crude oil shipments, the Union Pacific railroad last month boosted its rail inspection program on mountain passes in California and the West, dispatching high-tech vehicles with lasers to check tracks for imperfections.

    UP officials say they have leased two rail inspection vehicles, called geometry cars, doubling the number of computer-based safety cars in use on the company’s tracks. The move comes amid mounting public concern about hazardous-material shipments, including a growing quantity of highly flammable crude oil from North Dakota being shipped to West Coast refineries.

    The inspection cars will supplement similar geometry cars UP owns that it uses to inspect hundreds of miles of tracks daily on the company’s main lines west of the Mississippi River. Running at regular train speeds, the inspection vehicles can detect tiny deviations and wear on rail lines that could cause a derailment if allowed to grow, UP officials said.

    The new cars will patrol the main mountain routes into the state, UP officials said. Northern California sites will include Donner Pass, the Feather River Canyon and grades outside Dunsmuir. The state has designated all those areas high hazards for derailments.

    In Southern California, the inspection vehicles will patrol UP’s looping line over the Tehachapi Mountains, as well as the line on the Cuesta grade in San Luis Obispo County. The trains also will check mountain rails in Washington, Oregon, Utah and Nevada.

    “We’re ensuring we keep crude oil trains on the track,” said David Wickersham, UP’s chief maintenance engineer in the West. “We are going to time it so we are hitting California every three months.”

    State rail safety chief Paul King of the California Public Utilities Commission applauded the move. “It’s easy to maintain a straight (flat) railroad, but it’s not as easy to maintain a curved rail like you find in the mountains,” King said.

    Grady Cothen, a retired Federal Railroad Administration safety official, said the type of high-tech inspections cars UP is using have become a must for major railroad companies. With more freight moving through limited rail corridors, especially mountains, the financial and political implications of a major derailment that causes damage are huge for railroads.

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      California’s central valley: we need to double the tracks for all these trains

      Repost from The Turlock Journal

      Time to double what’s coming down the tracks

      By Dennis Wyatt, October 10, 2014

      Get ready for more trains.

      Kern County has approved the expansion of two of its three existing or proposed oil terminals that would increase the amount of oil moving by train by 620 percent.

      This has the potential to be both a good and a bad thing.

      First the good. California due to its location and its need for specialized refineries to meet air quality standards is not benefitting from lower gas prices triggered by America’s shale oil boom While the fracking revolution has reduced the nation’s oil imports from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and other countries by 30 percent since 2004 for the rest of the United States, California imports have jumped 33 percent during the same time frame.

      Oil costs $15 more per barrel from overseas and the North Slope in Alaska than it does from domestic sources in the Lower 48 states.

      There is no pipeline that crosses the Rockies into the West to carry crude oil. At the same time, just 1 percent of California’s monthly oil needs — 500,000 barrels — is now moved by rail. Eight planned oil terminals throughout the state could push that amount to 15 million gallons a month or a third of California’s oil use.

      It costs $12 a barrel to move oil by train from the Bakken oil fields to California.

      That translates into $3 less per barrel. By tapping into North Dakota crude, California drivers could benefit at the pump.

      Currently Kern County terminals have the capacity to handle 57 tank cars of oil a day. If all of the proposed expansion is completed, the oil terminals could handle 357 tank cars a day. Each tanker holds an average of 700 barrels of crude oil.

      The most direct route from the Bakken oil fields to Kern County is via Donner Pass using the Union Pacific. That would bring significantly more oil tanks cars through Lathrop, Manteca, Ripon, Modesto, Ceres, and Turlock.

      Santa Fe serves Kern County from the southeast.

      Should all plans go forward in Kern County and Union Pacific moves the crude, it creates the potential for three 100-car oil trains a day.

      That would be on top of intermodal train traffic where truck trailers are carried on flat cars that is expected to increase as UP expands their Lathrop terminal.

      Up until the surge in shale oil production a strong argument could be made that shipping crude and dangerous chemicals by rail is substantially safer than by truck for miles covered.

      But recent crude oil train derailments and explosions have upset that premise. Shale oil crude has turned out to be more volatile than regular crude. There has been a push to retrofit existing tank cars or deploy new ones that are less susceptible to exploding in a train derailment.

      An oil train derailment in Quebec last year killed 47 people.

      That’s why increased oil movement by rail makes many people nervous for obvious reasons.

      That said a lot of potential explosive and toxic materials move daily through the Valley by rail.

      And 26 years ago Manteca had a train derailment involving several tankers carrying toxic chemicals in the early morning fog that forced the evacuation of over 2,000 people.

      Moving goods whether it is oil or a truckload of potato chips is never without risk.

      Union Pacific’s has a fairly impressive safety record and routinely monitors and upgrades their main line through the San Joaquin Valley.

      Also, surrounding fire agencies do joint drills in case the unthinkable happens.

      Even so local elected officials need to start thinking about a couple of things. Increased train traffic — whether it is oil trains, regular freight trains or intermodal trains — means more waiting at crossings. More waiting usually means more impatient motorists — a primary ingredient for train disasters.

      At the same time Altamont Corridor Express is pushing to extend passenger train service to Modesto, Turlock and eventually Merced. The original 2018 timetable now looks a tad ambitious. But sometime in the relatively near future it can happen.

      And because of that, Manteca’s elected leaders need to lobby hard to make sure ACE goes with a plan to double tracks between Modesto and Lathrop.

      It reduces scheduling conflicts for freight, oil and passenger movements. And it also will somewhat reduce waiting times at crossings. Currently, it isn’t uncommon for twice a day for trains to block the Austin Road and Industrial Park Road crossings for 15 to 20 minutes while waiting for a train to pass.

      Given the potential for eight passenger trains a day between Modesto and Lathrop once the ACE extension is up and running and even more when it connects with high speed rail at Merced to ferry passengers between there and Sacramento, double tracking becomes essential.

      This is not one of those “we can wait to see what happens” things. The coming of more oil trains is a clear signal Manteca needs to start pursuing those in charge of planning the ACE extension to make sure the route through Manteca is double tracked not just for safety’s sake but also to make taking rail a viable commuting alternative.

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        Oil trains to pass through Stockton

        Repost from The Record, Stockton, CA
        [Editor: Significant quote: “‘These aren’t rail cars filled with rubber duckies. They’re filled with dangerous crude oil,’ said Diane Bailey, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco.”  – RS]

        Crude oil transport danger for Stockton?

        Deadly 2013 explosion in Quebec among incidents fueling concerns
        By Alex Breitler, Record Staff Writer, August 03, 2014
        Top Photo
        A train passes through Stockton carrying crude oil and other flammable liquids Friday morning. | CRAIG SANDERS/The Record

        It’s no misprint: Explosive crude oil shipments into California last year increased 506 percent.

        And a series of high-profile derailments and fiery explosions across North America has fueled fears that those seemingly ubiquitous tanker cars could someday spell disaster here, too.

        The surge has really just begun. In a few years the quantity of oil rolling down our railways will be “huge,” said Michael Cockrell, director of the San Joaquin County Office of Emergency Services.

        “You’re looking at some really major transportation of oil, and it’s everywhere,” Cockrell said. “It’s going to be all up and down the state.”

        The spike is tied to increased domestic drilling in North Dakota, where the Bakken shale formation produces especially valuable and especially volatile crude oil. Trains provide a fast and flexible way to transport that oil to West Coast refineries.

        Stockton’s a bit off the beaten path for at least some of these shipments, which often enter the state via Donner Pass or the Feather River Canyon, traveling through Sacramento on the way to Bay Area refineries.

        Still, with Stockton serviced by two major railroad companies and with tracks stretching through urban areas to the north, west and south, advocacy groups argue there is a risk here.

        “These aren’t rail cars filled with rubber duckies. They’re filled with dangerous crude oil,” said Diane Bailey, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco.

        It’s impossible to say how many oil trains already roll through town. Railroads don’t divulge that information, citing security concerns. Only recently did they begin notifying local emergency response officials about incoming shipments.

        But there are indications Stockton may have a part to play in the oil transportation boom.

        Documents describing a controversial proposed terminal in Pittsburg show that trains carrying oil would come from the east, from Stockton. Plans call for up to one train per day, five days a week to arrive at the Pittsburg terminal. From there, the oil would be shipped through pipelines to refineries.

        Plans are also in the works for a $320 million terminal at the Port of Stockton. Commissioners in 2012 approved a lease for the petroleum terminal and storage facility on 33 acres near Washington Street and Navy Drive, said Port Director Richard Aschieris.

        It hasn’t been built yet. But Reuters reported last month that trains would deliver 70,000 barrels of oil per day to the port’s Targa Resources Partners terminal. The Houston-based company would then load the oil onto ships to be delivered to refineries.

        Aschieris said that in addition to petroleum, Stockton’s terminal will also handle ethanol, natural gas, propane and other materials. He said it will generate $1.2 million a year in taxes for the city and county combined, along with 20 full-time, high-paying jobs.

        Aschieris said the project makes sense from a safety perspective.

        “No matter what they’re moving, if they move it onto a barge or ship, I would contend that is safer than putting it on trucks and taking it right in through the Bay Area,” he said.

        As for the trains that would deliver the oil, Stockton’s flat terrain decreases the odds of a derailment, said Aschieris, who added that private railroads have made “huge investments” in improving local tracks.

        The debate over the transportation of crude oil spreads far beyond Stockton and California.

        In Quebec, 63 tanks cars of crude oil exploded in July 2013, killing 47 people. Eight other major accidents have been reported in the past two years.

        Tellingly, train accidents involving crude oil have increased even while the overall number of train accidents and hazardous material spills has declined.

        In late July, acknowledging that the growing reliance on trains “poses a significant risk to life, property and the environment,” the federal government announced plans to phase out older tank cars within two years. They also took action to improve notifications about oil shipments, to reduce the speeds at which oil trains travel through towns, and to encourage railroads to choose the safest routes.

        Most crude oil is still transported by marine vessels. But the quantity sent by train has skyrocketed from 1 million barrels in 2012 to 6.3 million barrels last year, and experts say the number could climb as high as 150 million barrels by 2016, according to a report by a working group convened by Gov. Jerry Brown.

        For Cockrell, with county Emergency Services, the oil shipments are yet another potential disaster to worry about.

        Since railroads are regulated by the federal government, he said he’s concerned that local governments may have difficulty seeking assistance responding to a derailment, and that it might be difficult to seek reimbursement from the private railroads.

        Many people could be affected by a large spill in an urban area, Cockrell said.

        One advocacy group, San Francisco-based ForestEthics, recently issued “blast zone” maps showing the half-mile evacuation zones overlaid on rail routes that could conceivably carry shipments of crude oil. And the Natural Resources Defense Council has estimated that almost 4 million Californians could be at risk.

        Opposition has grown to the proposed new oil terminal in Pittsburg. Other projects are in the works in Bakersfield, Benicia, Santa Maria and Wilmington (Los Angeles).

        Mike Parissi, with San Joaquin County’s Environmental Health Department, said the county’s multi-agency hazardous materials team trains for potential railroad disasters – though not specifically for crude oil spills.

        “The big thing with the crude oil is it’s very flammable,” he said. “But we can deal with any kind of flammable liquid incident that might come.”

        Back at the port, Aschieris said crews there are used to handling hazardous materials. So are the railroads, said a spokeswoman for Burlington Northern Santa Fe, whose tracks pass through Stockton.

        “We’ve actually handled hazardous material for many, many years, and we’ve done so safely,” said spokeswoman Lena Kent. “Unfortunately there have been a few high-profile incidents.”

        She would not say how much crude oil her company sends through Stockton. She did say two crude oil trains per month enter the state, a tiny fraction of the 1,600 all-purpose trains that Burlington Northern operates throughout the country on any given day.

        Union Pacific did not respond to a request for information about its shipments.

        Bailey, the scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the trains should be rerouted, adding that they have a “stranglehold” on the cities through which they pass.

        “I haven’t really seen anyone entertain this conversation,” she said. “Does it make sense to bring mass quantities of really dangerous crude oil through people’s cities, so close to their homes?”

         

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