Tag Archives: Insurance and liability

Train safety provisions included in U.S. transportation bill

Repost from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Train safety provisions included in U.S. transportation bill

By Crocker Stephenson, Dec. 2, 2015
 Bakken oil trains rumble through downtown Milwaukee at 133 W. Oregon St., Milwaukee. A federal bill includes provisions requiring railroads to share safety information regarding trains and bridges with local officials.

Bakken oil trains rumble through downtown Milwaukee at 133 W. Oregon St., Milwaukee. A federal bill includes provisions requiring railroads to share safety information regarding trains and bridges with local officials. Image credit: Journal Sentinel files

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.

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Two months since Amtrak 188 derailed, what’s changed and why big problems remain: ‘It’s actually cheaper to kill people’

Repost from BillyPenn.com

NTSB_2015_Philadelphia_train_derailment_3

Philadelphia Amtrak 188 derailment. NTSB

Two months since Amtrak 188 derailed, what’s changed and why big problems remain: ‘It’s actually cheaper to kill people’

By Anna Orso, July 7, 2015, 9:00 am

In the two months since Amtrak 188 derailed in Philadelphia, killing eight people and injuring hundreds, the train giant has said that it’s making a number of changes to ensure better railroad safety. But is it really doing much beyond what it was already supposed to before the crash?

That depends on who you ask. Amtrak says it’s made a number of technological changes in wake of the crash to improve safety features. However, that admission came after the National Transportation Safety Board basically said the crash could have been prevented if Amtrak had it’s stuff together.

The major feature on railroad safety advocates’ list for decades is a way to automatically slow down trains on certain segments of track. Called Positive Train Control technology, federal regulators had mandated that all passenger train companies have it installed by the end of this year. The NTSB said this would have prevented the train, operated by engineer Brandon Bostian, from hitting 106 mph as it flew around a rated-for-50-mph curve in Philly.

Amtrak will be done installing PTC by the end of December, thus making the deadline and becoming the first “Class 1″ railroad company to do so. Spokesman Craig Schulz says the company is in the process of putting in “Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement Systems” to ensure trains are operated at safe speeds along the Northeast Corridor, spending more than $110 million since 2008 to install PTC.

The company also is quick to point out that in the immediate aftermath of the crash, it installed (read: fixed) a “code change point” in the signal system on the eastbound tracks just west of the Frankford Curve, meaning that trains traveling east from Philadelphia to New York approach the curve at 45 mph in accordance with the speed limit there. They’re not so quick to point out that this technology was previously required.

Amtrak, according to Schulz, has also committed to installing inward-facing video cameras in its fleet of ACS-64 locomotives in service on the Northeast Corridor by the end of this year and will comply with additional Federal Railroad Administration regulations released earlier this year. Cameras like this would have shown what, for instance, Bostian was doing as the train hit the curve at nearly double the recommended speed.

But the lawyers circling this case say these actions are a day late and a dollar short.

Bob Pottroff, a Kansas-based attorney who’s a railroad safety expert, is consulting with several of the personal injury lawyers who are representing victims in lawsuits against Amtrak and other parties. A number of those court actions have already been filed, including two of behalf of families whose loved ones were killed in the crash.

It’s expected the lawsuits against Amtrak will be consolidated, and the company will only be liable for a total of $200 million because of a cap put in place by Congress in 1997. This means that no matter how many people are killed or injured in a train crash, Amtrak will never be asked to pay up more than $200 million in total.

Pottroff thinks removing this cap would be the best way to get large railroad companies to stop dragging their feet on installing new and better technologies that he advocates should have been installed years ago.

“If you really want to scare the hell out of the railroad industry, the first thing to do is remove the damage cap,” he said. “They’re saying ‘we’re never going to have to pay more than $200 million,’ so any project that costs more doesn’t make sense.

“The failing state of our railroad infrastructure would probably cost closer to $200 billion to fix. It’s actually cheaper to kill people.”

And for Amtrak, someone has to be concerned about saving money. The transportation giant is staring down potentially massive cuts to its federal funding, after $270 million in cuts were approved by the House along party lines right after the crash. Democrats and safety advocates have rallied against slashing of funding.

Meanwhile, Amtrak is still focused on making train trips — especially along the Northeast Corridor which had 11.6 million riders in fiscal year 2014 — faster. Slowing down trains when they go around curves would counter those goals.

Pottroff said his fear is that Amtrak can make promises in wake of accidents, but he says the FRA hasn’t set up penalties for what could happen if the company doesn’t follow through with regulations in a timely manner. He says there aren’t any checks on the company.

“Nothing really has changed,” he said. “Until the FRA grows some teeth, they’re going to be a mouthpiece. We will go on hiding the ball on the real causes of problems until we have government oversight that is effective.”

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Victim compensation after oil train derailment: Big Oil cost of doing business?

Repost from DESMOG

Cost of Doing Business? Oil Companies Agree To Pay For Some of Lac-Megantic Damages, But Not to Solve the Real Problems

By Justin Mikulka, June 21, 2015 – 05:58

Image credit: Wikimedia

Although insisting the industry is not to blame, several of the oil companies involved in the fatal Lac-Megantic oil train accident in 2013 have agreed to contribute to a fund to compensate the families of the 47 victims in that accident.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that oil companies Shell, ConocoPhillips, Marathon and Irving have all agreed to contribute to the fund to avoid future litigation, along with General Electric and the Canadian government. While the actual amounts contributed by most companies involved are not available, the total fund is reportedly at $345 million. That sounds like a lot of money but still is less than the $400 million retirement package for Exxon’s last CEO, for example.

Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. hasn’t agreed to the settlement, according to the Bangor Daily News, which reports that the judge in the case has delayed his decision on the settlement. Canadian Pacific has asked the court to shield it from future litigation and challenged the Quebec provincial court’s jurisdiction.

It is no surprise that oil companies would prefer to pay fines of tens of millions of dollars to avoid future litigation as well as duck responsibility for the full cost of the cleanup. Rebuilding the destroyed Lac Megantic property is expected to take as long as eight years and as much as $2.7 billion.

This approach has proven successful for the oil and rail industry in the past. In 2009, when a Canadian National (CN) ethanol train derailed in Cherry Valley, Illinois resulting in a fire and the death of one woman and injury to several others, the railroad paid the surviving family members $36 million.

The National Transportation Safety Board laid some of the blame for that tragedy on the “inadequate design of the tank cars, which made them subject to damage and catastrophic loss of hazardous materials during the derailment.”

But CN just paid the $36 million and the industry kept using the same inadequate DOT-111 tank cars to move ethanol and crude oil. It was the DOT-111 tank cars that were involved in the Lac-Megantic accident four years later, and the same tank cars that the oil industry is currently fighting to keep on the rails as long as possible.

There is no question it is far more profitable for the oil and rail industries to continue to use unsafe rail tank cars and to just pay off the families of the victims or for environmental damages from oil spills after any accidents than to invest in safer tank cars.

Canadian National has had two oil train derailments already in 2015 which the company reports have cost it $40 million. However, CN still reported over $700 million in net income for just the first quarter of 2015.

Business as usual in the oil-by-rail industry is highly profitable. Which is why the oil and rail industries are fighting against any safety measures that would require investment and cut into profits.

After the faulty tank cars, the two other issues the oil industry has fought against are modernized braking systems and removing the volatile and explosive natural gas liquids from the oil itself via stabilization.

Both of these proven safety measures would cost the industry billions of dollars to implement. So they haven’t done anything. It is far more profitable to live with the consequences of some accidents and make relatively small payouts to avoid lawsuits than it is to invest in safe alternatives.

In 2013, the year of the Lac-Megantic disaster, the big five oil companies made $93 billion in profits. Fines and settlements like those resulting from oil train disasters or deadly refinery accidents are simply a cost of doing business. And for these companies, it turns out to be a very small cost when compared to the profits.

In a forum on rail safety held in Albany, NY this month, emergency first responders from three oil train accidents (Lac-Megantic, Lynchburg, Virginia and Galena, Illinois) recounted their experiences dealing with oil train fires and explosions. While offering excellent insights to the risks involved with oil-by-rail, there also was insight into how the rail companies responded once the accidents occurred.

For both the Lynchburg and Galena accidents, it was noted that the rail companies were on the scene almost immediately. And they rebuilt the tracks and got them back in operation as soon as possible because in Galena, rail downtime was costing the company $1 million an hour. When money is at stake, the rail companies jump into action.

Did the rail company jump into action the day before the Lynchburg rail accident when an inspection revealed a defect in the track in Lynchburg? No.

At the forum in Albany, Lynchburg Battalion Chief Robert Lipscomb summed up the situation nicely.

“You got to remember their business is making money. Our business is taking care of emergencies. So sometimes those two don’t line up exactly right,” Lipscomb said.

When your business is making money, it is much easier to accomplish your goals by lobbying regulators to ensure weak regulations and paying out meaningless fines when something goes wrong than to invest in safety.

The oil trains will return to Lac-Megantic in 2016, with the same inadequate tank cars and 19th century braking systems. And they will be full of unstabilized, dangerous and very profitable oil.

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