Tag Archives: High Hazard Flammable Trains (HHFTs)

Deadline for train safety technology undercut by industry lobbying

Repost from the Washington Post

Deadline for train safety technology undercut by industry lobbying

By Ashley Halsey III and Michael Laris October 25 at 10:13 PM


Until a train barreled off the tracks at 9:26 p.m. on May 12, it had been business as usual on Capitol Hill. Among the bills quietly making their way toward a final vote was one that would postpone by several years a multibillion- dollar safety-enhancement deadline facing the railroad industry.

A victory for the railroads, which maintain one of the most powerful lobbying efforts in Washington, seemed all but certain and likely to be little noticed outside of the industry.

But at that moment, an Amtrak train hurtling toward New York City derailed in Philadelphia, turning into a tangle of crushed metal that killed eight passengers and injured 200 more.

Everyone — including the railroad and federal investigators — agreed that the catastrophe could have been prevented by a single innovation called Positive Train Control (PTC). It’s an automatic braking system that federal regulators call “the single-most important rail safety development in more than a century.”

Now, after a period of reflection and several inquiries, Congress once more is on the brink of postponing the deadline for use of PTC. The proposed delay — until at least 2018 — comes in a new regulatory era for the railroads. Trains filled with volatile natural gas or oil have derailed seven times so far this year, and there is fear that one could cause catastrophic explosions as it passes through a city.

A mighty lobby

What has taken place since May provides insight into the influence that effective lobbyists wield in Washington and how ready access to members of Congress has helped one industry fend off a costly safety mandate.

Seven years ago, Congress ordered railroads to have PTC installed by the end of 2015. It was an uncomfortable deadline for the industry, one it argued should be postponed. PTC technology was too complex, the railroads said, and the $14.7 billion cost to equip freight and commuter lines was prohibitive. Federal economists put the cost-benefit ratio at about 20 to 1.

With their lobbyists in overdrive in 2008, the railroads might have persuaded Congress to delay the mandate. But in the middle of that debate, a head-on train collision in California killed 25 people and injured 102 others. The National Transportation Safety Board said PTC could have prevented the accident, and that moved lawmakers to settle on the Dec. 31, 2015, deadline.

The NTSB says it has investigated 145 rail accidents since 1969 that PTC could have prevented, with a toll of 288 people killed and 6,574 people injured.

In the years since Congress moved to finalize the deadline in 2008, the railroad industry has spent $316 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), to maintain one of the most savvy lobbying teams in Washington. It also contributed more than $24 million during the same period to the reelection efforts of members of Congress, targeting in particular the chairmen and members of key committees that govern its business.

In 2011, the chairman of the House subcommittee on railroads spoke out at a hearing, denouncing the PTC mandate as “an example of regulatory overreach.” He said PTC would have “a very, very small cost-benefit ratio.”

Since then, that chairman, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), has risen to lead the full House Transportation Committee. Late last month, he introduced a bipartisan bill to extend the PTC deadline to at least 2018, and beyond if the “railroads demonstrate they are facing continued difficulties.”

“Railroads must implement this important but complicated safety technology in a responsible manner, and we need to give them the necessary time to do so,” Shuster said in a statement announcing the bill.

Since taking office in 2001, Shuster has received campaign contributions of $446,079 from the railroad industry, according to the CRP, with $141,484 of it coming in the 2013-2014 election cycle.

Money flows readily to the chairs of powerful committees, but other members of the House Transportation Committee also have benefited from railroad contributions. In the 2013-2014 election cycle, committee members received more than $1.25 million in direct contributions to their campaigns. As of the end of September, the railroads had pitched another $721,742 at the House committee members.

The Senate also has benefited from the railroad industry’s largesse, according to the CRP, with 77 senators receiving nearly $1.5 million in campaign contributions in 2013-2014.

Outside the Beltway, massive contributions may sound like the cost to buy a vote in Congress. But in this era of mega-money politics, campaign contributions win something almost as valuable for railroad lobbyists: face time with a member of the House or Senate.

“They call and they get a member meeting right away,” said a senior Senate staff member familiar with the process. “They have a lot of access.”

And that access brings into play what are described as some of the best lobbyists on Capitol Hill, including several dozen who once were staff members or lawmakers in Congress.

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee and the recipient of more than $70,000 in railroad campaign money since 2013, says it’s the footwork of the lobbyists, not the campaign contributions, that wins the day.

“In these days, when you have one Wall Street billionaire spend a million bucks [on a campaign], getting a few thousand dollars from a railroad?” he said with a shrug. “The railroads invest a lot of time on the Hill, and they present a pretty good story for the most part.”

Oil boom raises the stakes

Rail safety has never been a more pressing issue than it is today. So far, the people who have died in U.S. accidents that PTC could have prevented have generally been crew members or passengers. That could change in dramatic, catastrophic fashion.

The number of rail tank cars carrying flammable material in the United States has grown from 9,500 seven years ago to 493,126 last year, thanks to the boom in domestic oil produced in the Bakken oil fields.

Those trains rumble from the oil fields in Montana, North Dakota and Saskatchewan, Canada, to refineries on the East, West and Gulf coasts.

This year, seven trains have derailed, either leaking their contents or exploding. All of the U.S. explosions have come in remote rural areas where the erupting fireballs did little damage.

Canada was not so lucky.

In July 2013, a runaway freight train carrying 74 tank cars full of Bakken oil derailed in the town of Lac-Mégantic, setting off an inferno that destroyed 30 downtown buildings and killed 47 people.

Coastal states in the United States and the city of Chicago, the most important railroad hub in the nation, have come up with scenarios that depict the potential damage and death tolls should a train explode in different sections of their urban areas. Chicago, fearing that the plan’s release could cause panic, has declined to make it public.

Sarah Feinberg, acting head of the Federal Railroad Administration, says that worries of a train exploding in the middle of a city have caused her sleepless nights.

“If PTC is not fully implemented by Jan. 1, 2016, we can and should expect there to be accidents in the months and years to follow that PTC could have prevented,” she told the House subcommittee on railroads in June.

Bob Gildersleeve Sr., whose son Bob, a Maryland father of two, was killed in the May crash, said rail companies seem to be evading the mandate with an attitude of: “What are you going to do about it?”

“Is a deadline a deadline?” Gildersleeve asked. “We’re talking about fixing things that will eventually save lives, and you guys haven’t done it. Why?”

Many railroads far behind

The railroads’ pitch for an extension — both loudly in the media and quietly to Congress — has been straightforward. Unless the deadline is postponed:

“Transportation of all goods over freight rail grinds to a halt; the U.S. economy loses $30 billion; household incomes drop by $17 billion; 700,000 Americans lose their jobs; millions of commuters are stranded.”

That was the message Oct. 19 when officials from three commuter rail lines and Association of American Railroads President Ed Hamberger held a conference call with reporters to add their voices to a chorus calling for an extension of the PTC deadline.

“If the congressionally mandated deadline of Dec. 31 is not extended, there will be a transportation crisis in the country with severe economic consequences,” said Michael Melaniphy, president of the American Public Transportation Association.

The call had an unintended subtext; all three of the commuter rail lines represented — Virginia Railway Express, Chicago’s Metra system and California’s San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission — said their installation of PTC would be substantially complete by the end of 2015. Amtrak also promises to have PTC operating in the Northeast Corridor rails that it owns by the current deadline.

But most passenger trains operate on track that’s owned by the freight railroads, and the freight rail lines are far from ready to meet the deadline. The freight companies say that without an extension, all traffic on their lines must halt to comply with the law.

The railroads say they’ve already spent $5.7 billion on PTC installation and are committed to finishing the job. None will meet the Dec. 31 deadline.

“It doesn’t matter how fast the bear is that’s chasing you, if you’re running as fast as you can, you can’t run any faster,” said Frank Lonegro, vice president of the freight rail carrier CSX, which operates more than 21,000 miles of rail in 23 eastern states, Washington and two Canadian provinces.

Some of the big railroads have made progress, while others lag far behind.

One of the largest, the BNSF Railway, has made substantial progress. At the other end of the spectrum, Union Pacific hasn’t fully equipped any of its 6,532 locomotives, according to a Federal Railroad Administration report released in August.

“Union Pacific is pretending [the deadline] is not happening,” said one federal official who reviewed the report.

Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt says that “integrating these technologies into an interoperable system is very difficult,” much like merging medical records into a computerized system, and that the company already has made a $1.7 billion investment, including work on the bulk of its locomotives.

Lonegro’s colleague, CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle, said railroad lobbyists have been telling Congress for years that a 2015 deadline wasn’t realistic.

“In the early conversations, before the law was passed, the industry was identifying 2018 as a reasonable deadline that we thought we could achieve,” he said.

A federal official familiar with those 2008 negotiations offered a different perspective.

“The railroads were in the room, and [Association of American Railroads] and those guys were the ones who said 2015 was doable. They did not embrace the deadline, but they said it was a fair bill,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of involvement in the current negotiations.

“It certainly wasn’t, ‘Oh, we sprung it on the railroads at the last minute,’ as they would like some to believe,” said a staff member who was in the room while the deal was being struck.

When the final regulations were put in place nearly six years ago, federal officials tallied up the expected benefits of having the automatic braking system in place. The cost-benefit analysis put a price tag on crumpled locomotives, train delays, track damage, evacuation costs, the cleanup of hazardous spills and other consequences of the crashes that could be prevented.

Government economists also sought to calculate the human costs in injuries and deaths, using a figure of $6 million for each life that was expected to be saved. Over 20 years, there would be $269 million in savings, they figured, or the equivalent of 45 lives spared. There would be another $200 million in prevented injury costs.

In all, they projected $674 million in safety benefits from the PTC system. It would cost $13.2 billion over 20 years, including maintenance costs, to net those benefits, the economists calculated.

That came out to a cost-benefit ratio of about 20 to 1, a disconnect seized on by railroad executives, lobbyists and lawmakers sympathetic to their needs, such as Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.).

“Now, everybody has tremendous sympathy for those families that lost loved ones in the Amtrak accident, but my goodness, now we’re going to be spending billions to make something that already is one of the safest things in the entire world [safer]?” Duncan, who has received $303,250 in railroad campaign support during a 27-year career in the House, said at a June hearing. “And I’m thinking that we would be better off to spend those billions in many, many other ways — cancer research, and everything else.”

But federal rail officials and some outside experts argue that the technology needed to prevent crashes ultimately can transform the future of railroading. More frequent trains, more efficiently deployed across the country, could move more goods while cutting down on expensive fuel costs, dramatically increasing potential benefits.

Some industry executives have embraced this future, while others have pushed back. In a conference call with Wall Street analysts just 19 days before the Amtrak derailment, Union Pacific’s president and chief executive, Lance M. Fritz, predicted Congress would extend the deadline, adding that his company’s lobbyists were “giving feedback and input into our thoughts to help navigate that process.”

Dan Keating contributed to this report.

    Minnesota Governor Pens Scathing Letter To BNSF President Over Oil Trains In Twin Cities

    Repost from CBS Minnesota
    [Editor:  Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton learned about new routing of oil trains in a major metropolitan area AFTER THE FACT.  That is how the railroads notify the public of major changes in crude by rail transport.  It is important to have a sitting Governor join the chorus of voices on this highly significant issue of rail routing and notification.  See the TV news video below, and read Gov. Dayton’s full letter  here.  – RS]

    Dayton Pens Scathing Letter To BNSF President Over Oil Trains In Twin Cities

    By Jennifer Mayerle, October 21, 2015 10:34 PM

    MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Gov. Mark Dayton says he’s deeply concerned about an increase in the number of oil trains traveling through heavily populated areas of the Twin Cities.

    In a letter to the President of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, Dayton estimates an additional 99,000 people are living within an evacuation zone. The areas include spots where thousands gather at a time, like Target Field and the University of Minnesota.

    Kathy Harrell-Latham lives in downtown Minneapolis with her family.

    “We chose this neighborhood because it’s accessible and the risks were relatively limited,” Harrell-Latham said.

    She was concerned to learn 11 to 23 crude oil trains per week are being transported on the Willmar-Minneapolis-St. Paul rail line. And it goes by Target Field, Target Center, the U of M and downtown Minneapolis.

    “There are people that live here and work here all day and we need the safety measures to go above and beyond,” Harrell-Latham said.

    Gov. Mark Dayton wrote a scathing letter to the President of BNSF Railway citing safety concerns and outrage over not being informed of the “significant change in operation, which puts an additional 99,000 Minnesotans at risk.”

    That brings the total number in the state to roughly 425,000.

    “The Governor is absolutely right there should not be these dangerous oil and ethanol trains being routed through population areas,” DFL Rep. Frank Hornstein said.

    Hornstein championed last year’s crude oil transport response bill. He applauds the Governor’s request for the railway to: issue a public statement about the temporary route, to not operate under Target Field during events and to extend first responder training to affected communities, among others.

    It’s in an effort to prevent accidents like this BNSF train that derailed in Montana in July, and a 2013 accident in Quebec that killed 47.

    “We need to have a much stronger safety protocol for these trains as they come through but the railroads are not cooperating and now we have more evidence of that,” Hornstein said.

    In response, BNSF issued this statement:

    “BNSF has multiple routes in the metro area that we utilize for hauling a variety of commodities. We comply with the law and report to the state crude volumes of a certain size and their routes and when they change by 25 percent. That occurred in this case where we have a major expansion project occurring and are rerouting some traffic to accommodate that construction work. Crude oil was already being shipped on the route in question. Volumes and routes can fluctuate for a number of reasons. In all areas of the metro region where we move crude oil and other hazmat, we take a number of steps to reduce risk. We’ll be talking directly with the Governor on his concerns and our ongoing efforts to safely move all commodities by rail.”

     Gov. Dayton has asked BNSF to provide a progress report by the end of the month, and urges them to inform him and the public about changes.

    Read Gov. Dayton’s full letter here.

     

      LETTER: Is “Crude by Rail” Good for Benicia?

      Is “Crude by Rail” Good for Benicia?

      By Craig Snider, September 23, 2015
      [A version of this letter appeared in the Vallejo Times-Herald on 10/5/15.]

      I’d like to share a few thoughts about Valero’s “Crude by Rail” project.

      To recap, the proposal consists of constructing a depot at the Valero refinery to offload crude oil. The crude would come from fracking of shale in South Dakota or from the mining of tar sands in Canada. The shale oil is especially flammable and prone to explosion if derailed. The tar sand oil is extremely toxic. According US Department of transportation regulations, such trains are referred to as “High Hazard Flammable Trains” or HHFT’s. Two trains (100 tank cars total) per day would pass through a portion of the Benicia Industrial Park en route to the new depot. A decision is needed by the City of Benicia whether to allow construction of the depot at the proposed refinery site, or require that the depot be built outside the city and piped into the refinery, or deny the project altogether.

      According to the City Manager, the industrial park is the “engine of Benicia” and the best way to generate additional revenue is to “diversify.”   In fact, according to Benicia Strategic Plan, Issue #3 – “Strengthening Economic and Fiscal Conditions,” strategies include “Strengthen Industrial Park Competitiveness” and “Retain and Attract Business.” Yet businesses are already leaving the industrial park for sites that better meet their needs.   I ask: If you wanted to locate your business in an Industrial Park, are you more likely to choose one clogged with 100 tank cars of High Hazard Flammable crude each day, or one without it? Would your customers be comfortable in the presence of such a hazard or would they take their business elsewhere?   Remember, this is the same type of crude that caught fire in 2013, exploded (leaving a .62 mile radius blast zone), and killed 47 people and destroyed the entire downtown of Lac Megantic, Quebec. Most areas of the industrial park and the NE corner of Waters End subdivision would be at risk from a similar blast zone. Would you be more, or less likely to buy a home in a community with the daily presence of HHFTs?

      Valero claims that despite chronic violations of air quality, they place a high value on safety. But remember, Valero’s responsibility and control of the HHFT’s begins and ends at the refinery gate. Valero has repeatedly attempted to distance itself from any responsibility for rail shipments of crude. They have cited state and federal law in an effort to wash their hands of any responsibility for accidents that occur beyond their gates. (See Revised Draft Environmental Impact Report (RDEIR) appendix H). Yet, the freight railroad business remains virtually unregulated and their safety practices are largely secret. In fact, the Federal Railroad Administration doesn’t know how many rail bridges there are because there is no public inventory of them. Railroads inspect and maintain their own tracks and determine what condition to keep them in, but keep that information secret. And, when state or local emergency managers get information from railroads about oil trains, the railroads ask the government agencies to promise to keep the information from the public.  Why would we want 100 tank cars of highly flammable (and explosive) crude oil rolling through our town each day with no analysis or transparency regarding the safety systems employed by the railroad?

      I understand that Valero contributes a major portion of the tax base for our community. Many of our citizens depend on income from Valero. But isn’t it time for all of us to begin weaning ourselves from our fossil fuel addiction? Many of us were sickened by the specter of ISIS militants shelling ancient temples and other World Heritage sites. Yet these acts pale in comparison to the tar sand mining destruction in Canada, which will supply some or all of Valero’s crude by rail. Tar sand mining destroys Boreal forests, leaving a wasteland of toxic chemicals and groundwater pollution that seeps into rivers and streams. Why decry the ISIS destruction, but ignore the vast destruction of natural systems associated with crude by rail? How can an activity that is so destructive to our world be considered “Good for Benicia”? How can unchecked greenhouse gas production, global warming, and the ruin of our planet for future generations be “Good for Benicia”? How can putting the future of our industrial park and our livelihoods at risk be “Good for Benicia”? And finally, what does it say about a community that is willing to profit from such destruction?

      Maybe it’s inevitable that the city will approve the project. Shame on us if we do. But if it must be done, the best solution is Alternative 3: Offsite Unloading Terminal. Alternative 3 keeps HHFTs out of Benicia, while allowing Valero to get their crude by rail.   We need to diversify the Industrial Park and make it more (not less) attractive to other businesses. We want an inviting community, not one whose safety is compromised by ill-conceived means of procuring crude oil. It’s one thing to live in the shadow of an oil refinery with it’s own inherent hazards and pollutants. Why up the ante when we don’t have to?

      If you would like to voice your concerns about Valero’s Crude by Rail project, attend the Planning Commission meeting scheduled for September 29 at 6:30 pm at the City Council Chambers or send in comments on the Revised Draft Environmental Impact Report before October 16th. For more information contact Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community at safebenicia.org.