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.”
Wisconsin derailments are a reminder of need to improve rail safety
Editorial | Railroad safety | November 12, 2015
The three train derailments in the last week in Wisconsin are another reminder that the industry, Congress and states have to move faster in making safety upgrades to rail cars and the tracks on which they move. Part of those improvements also should include better training for local responders to train accidents, better government oversight and more public access to industry records related to safety issues.
A rail accident near Alma on Saturday resulted in a spill of 18,000 gallons of ethanol, much of which escaped into the Mississippi River. That accident involved a class of tankers that are being phased out and replaced with tankers that have more safety features. On Sunday in Watertown, a derailment resulted in the spill of crude oil and prompted the evacuation of 35 homes. That accident involved tankers that had been retrofitted with some upgrades. A minor derailment also occurred Wednesday in Watertown, but there was no spill and the cars stayed upright.
As the Journal Sentinel noted in a Monday story, the accidents were the latest in a series of rail tanker mishaps across the United States and Canada in recent years that have moved safety issues and preparedness into the spotlight. That includes in Milwaukee, where oil-laden trains move through the heart of the city.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said Monday that “There has to be a stronger emphasis on safety — not just in urban areas but smaller communities as well. Watertown is not a large community.”
And in a news release Thursday, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said. “I have been sounding the alarm for two years on the need to put in place strong rail safety reforms. These two train derailments in Wisconsin are more evidence why Congress needs to take action on the reforms I have proposed.”
Baldwin went on to call on the House and Senate conference committee “to include the reforms I have proposed in the final transportation bill. We need to put in place rail reforms that provide safety, transparency, and better communication between the railroads and local first responders and communities.”
She’s right, as is Barrett. While the Senate adopted Baldwin’s reforms on rail safety in its version of the transportation bill, the House did not include those measures in its version. The conference committee should make sure the final bill includes the reforms.
The fact is that railroad infrastructure is wearing down across the nation at the same time that there is a rising tide of railroad traffic, shipping oil from North Dakota to markets. Yes, railroad shipping is generally safe. The Association of American Railroads reports that the train accident rate is down 79% from 1980 and 42% from 2000, and that “99.995% of tanks carrying crude arrive safely.”
And yet there is a serious risk to citizens. More crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents in 2013 than was spilled in the previous 37 years. In 2013 in Quebec, 47 people were killed and 1.5 million gallons of crude oil were spilled in a rail accident involving crude being moved from North Dakota. That train had passed through downtown Milwaukee.
The Wisconsin derailments are part of that pattern. Congress and the industry need to pick up the pace on safety.
Asked for info on bridge conditions, railroad carrying Bakken crude tells cities no
By Lee Bergquist, Sept. 13, 2015
Despite urging from a federal agency that railroads hand over more information on safety conditions of bridges, a carrier moving Bakken crude oil through Milwaukee says it doesn’t plan to provide such details.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) distributed a letter from Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, in which the regulator urged railroad carriers to provide more information to municipalities on the safety status of bridges. Milwaukee officials have complained about the lack of information on the structural integrity of railroad bridges used by Canadian Pacific in the city.
“When a local leader or elected official asks a railroad about the safety status of a railroad bridge, they deserve a timely and transparent response,” Feinberg wrote.
“I urge you to engage more directly with local leaders and provide more timely information to assure the community that the bridges in their communities are safe and structurally sound.”
“CP’s position has not changed,” said Andy Cummings, a manager of media relations for the company.
“It is our policy to work directly with the Federal Railroad Administration, which is our regulator, on any concerns they have with our infrastructure.”
The exchange comes in the wake of growing concerns from communities along rail corridors used by railroads shipping a growing tide of oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota.
Those worries have been exacerbated by tanker accidents. The most notable is the July 2013 derailment of tankers that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The tankers had been routed through Milwaukee before the accident.
There have been no accidents involving crude in Wisconsin, but on March 5 a BNSF Railway train derailed and caught fire near Galena, Ill., after leaving Wisconsin. Twenty-one tankers derailed. Galena is about 10 miles south of the border.
In Milwaukee, one bridge in question is a 300-foot-long structure, known as a steel stringer bridge, at W. Oregon St. and S. 1st St. The bridge was constructed in 1919, according to Bridgehunter.com, which keeps a database of historic bridges.
Canadian Pacific said on Sept. 1 that it would encase 13 of the bridge’s steel columns with concrete to prevent further corrosion and to extend the life of the columns. The carrier said last week that a protective layer of concrete will be applied late this month.
Since last spring, neighbors have expressed worries about the integrity of the bridge, and since July city officials have sought details on the condition of the bridge.
In addition to the threat to human safety, environmental groups such as Milwaukee Riverkeeper say about three dozen bridges cross rivers and streams in the Milwaukee River basin.
On Sunday, a flotilla of kayaks and canoes paddled at the confluence of the Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers to underscore the connection between trains and the city’s waterways.
Bridges must be inspected annually by railroads. But railroads are not required to submit the information to the federal agency. Railroads also are not required to make the information available to the public.
Cummings said the bridge on S. 1st St. has been inspected by a railroad bridge inspector. “We are confident in its ability to safely handle freight and passenger train traffic,” Cummings said.
In her letter, Feinberg said the agency is “re-evaluating” its programs to determine whether it needs to take additional steps.
Common Council President Michael Murphy said he isn’t satisfied by Feinberg’s comments.
“I would liked to have seen a little more teeth in it,” he said.
Murphy said Canadian Pacific should be more transparent, adding that he expects the company to brief the council’s public safety panel soon on the bridge’s condition.
Baldwin and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, also a Democrat, said in an editorial in the La Crosse Tribune last week that oil trains have put “hundreds of communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin at risk for the explosive crashes that come when an oil train derails.”
Nationally, trains carrying crude oil in the United States have jumped from 10,840 carloads in 2009 to 233,698 in 2012 to 493,127 in 2014, according to the Association of American Railroads.
Canadian Pacific is shipping seven to 11 Bakken crude trains a week through Wisconsin, including Milwaukee, according to the latest data sent to the Wisconsin Division of Emergency Management. BNSF is shipping 20 to 30 trainloads along the Mississippi River.
In a federal transportation bill that has passed the Senate but not yet the House, Baldwin and Franken said they added language that would make oil train information available for first responders. It would also give state and local officials access to inspection records of bridges.
Cheryl Nenn of Riverkeeper said a rail accident that spilled crude could have long-lasting effects on the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers, and Lake Michigan, the city’s source of drinking water.
Complicating a potential oil spill in downtown Milwaukee is wave action from Lake Michigan, known as a seiche effect, where surging water from the lake can push water upstream, she said.
“The Milwaukee River is cleaner today than it has been in decades, and now we face a threat from crude oil,” Nenn said.