Tag Archives: Public safety funding

States Step Up Scrutiny of Oil Train Shipments

Repost from GOVERNING The States and Localities

States Step Up Scrutiny of Oil Train Shipments

Some states are looking to prevent more derailments and spills, but the freight industry doesn’t want more regulation.
 By Daniel C. Vock | August 26, 2015
In 2014, several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James River near downtown Lynchburg, Va. (AP/Steve Helber)

When it comes to regulating railroads, states usually let the federal government determine policy. But mounting concerns about the safety of oil trains are making states bolder. In recent months, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington state have taken steps to strengthen oversight of the freight rail industry.

The three join several other states — mostly led by Democrats — in policing oil shipments through inspection, regulation and even lawsuits. Washington, for example, applied a 4-cent-per-barrel tax on oil moved by trains to help pay for clean-ups of potential spills. The new law also requires freight rail companies to notify local emergency personnel when oil trains would pass through their communities.

“This means that at a time when the number of oil trains running through Washington is skyrocketing, oil companies will be held accountable for playing a part in preventing and responding to spills,” said Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee when signing the measure this spring.

The flurry of state activity comes in response to a huge surge in the amount of oil transported by rail in the last few years. Oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and nearby states must travel by train to refineries and ports because there are few pipelines or refineries on the Great Plains. The type of oil found in North Dakota is more volatile — that is, more likely to catch on fire — than most varieties of crude.

Public concerns about the safety of trains carrying oil have increased with the derailments in places like Galena, Ill.; Mt. Carbon, W. Va.; Aliceville, Ala.; Lynchburg, Va.; Casselton, N.D.; and especially Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where 47 people died in 2013.

Federal regulators responded to these incidents by requiring railroads to upgrade their oil train cars, to double check safety equipment on unattended trains, and to tell states when and where oil trains would be passing through their borders. This last requirement was hard won. This summer, the Federal Railroad Administration tried to encourage states to sign nondisclosure agreements with railroads about the location of oil trains. After several states balked, the agency relented.

California, Louisiana, New Jersey, Ohio and Oklahoma have all signed nondisclosure agreements, while Idaho, Illinois, Montana, North Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin have refused to do so, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

A Maryland judge earlier this month ruled against two rail carriers, Norfolk Southern and CSX, that wanted to block the state’s environmental agency from releasing details of their oil shipments. The railroads have until early next month to decide whether to appeal.

“The ruling isn’t the first time railroads have lost their bid to keep the oil train reports secret,” wrote reporter Curtis Tate of McClatchy, one of the news organizations that requested the records, “but it is the first court decision recognizing the public’s right to see them.”

Many states want this information so that fire departments and other emergency personnel can prepare for a potential derailment. California passed a law last year imposing clean-up fees on oil shipped by rail. The railroad industry challenged the law in court, but a judge ruled this summer that the lawsuit was premature. Minnesota passed a similar law last year, and New York added rail inspectors to cope with the increase in oil train traffic. A 1990 federal law lets states pass their own rules to prepare for oil spills, as long as those rules are at least as rigorous as federal regulations.

In Pennsylvania, which handles 60 to 70 oil trains a week, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf asked a University of Delaware expert to help to improve safety of oil trains traveling through the state. The professor, Allan Zarembski, produced 27 recommendations for the state and the railroads. He called on the state to improve its inspection processes of railroad tracks, particularly for tracks leading into rail yards, side tracks and refineries that often handle oil trains. The professor also encouraged the state to coordinate emergency response work with the railroads and local communities.

Zarembski’s suggestions for the railroads focused on how they should test for faulty tracks, wheel bearings and axles. Most major derailments in recent years were caused by faulty track or broken equipment, not human error, he noted in his report.

Please share!

Railroads face big fines for failure to meet federal safety deadline

Repost from McClatchyDC

Railroads face big fines for failure to meet federal safety deadline

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Feds plan to enforce Dec. 31 deadline
  • Penalties could add up for railroads
  • Congress hasn’t provided much funding
By Curtis Tate, August 7, 2015

An Amtrak Capitol Corridor train from Sacramento, Calif., arrives at Diridon Station in San Jose on Aug. 10, 2012, alongside trains of Altamont Commuter Express. Amtrak and commuter railroads must install Positive Train Control this year under a 2008 mandate from Congress, but most will miss the deadline.

The Federal Railroad Administration plans to impose big penalties on railroads that fail to meet a year-end deadline to install a new collision avoidance system, including more than 70 percent of the nation’s commuter railroads.

Congress mandated Positive Train Control in 2008, but most of the nation’s commuter and freight railroads won’t have the system ready by Dec. 31. The technology is required for about 60,000 miles of track, including those that carry passengers or chemicals that are poisonous or toxic by inhalation.

A push in Congress to extend the deadline by three to five years has stalled, and lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return to the Capitol until next month.

Despite the commuter rail industry’s best efforts, implementing PTC nationwide by the end of this year is not possible. Michael Melaniphy, president and CEO, American Public Transportation Association

In a Friday report to lawmakers, the FRA said it planned to enforce the mandate they set in 2008. As of Jan. 1, 2016, railroads that have failed to install Positive Train Control on the required track segments face fines up to $25,000 a day for each violation.

“The potential civil penalties that FRA could assess are substantial,” the agency wrote.

Only 29 percent of the nation’s commuter railroads will meet the Dec. 31 deadline, according to the American Public Transportation Association, and the rest may need one to five more years.

“Despite the commuter rail industry’s best efforts,” said Michael Melaniphy, the association’s president and CEO, “implementing PTC nationwide by the end of this year is not possible.”

FRA has requested funding from Congress every year since 2011 to help commuter railroads install Positive Train Control, including $825 million in President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2016 budget. Lawmakers have only provided $42 million to date.

“Congress has not provided a guaranteed, reliable revenue stream for implementation on commuter railroads,” the agency wrote.

The agency has used other tools to help commuter railroads, including $650 million in grant funds, $400 million of which came from the 2009 economic stimulus.

In May, FRA issued a $967 million loan to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the nation’s largest commuter rail agency, to install Positive Train Control on the Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road.

Melaniphy said that commuter railroads have spent $950 million to date on the system, but need nearly $3.5 billion to get the job done.

The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended the system since 1969, but Congress didn’t require it until the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008.

Twenty-five people were killed in August of that year when a Metrolink commuter train smashed head-on into a freight train near Chatsworth, Calif.

Positive Train Control could have automatically stopped the train before it ran past a red signal. Metrolink is one of the few commuter railroads that will meet the Dec. 31 deadline.

$25,000 Maximum fine, per incident per day, for missing Dec. 31 deadline

In other more recent fatal crashes, trains approached curves at two or three times the appropriate speed, and the system could automatically have slowed them down.

Four people died in December 2013 when a Metro-North commuter train jumped the tracks north of New York City. The train was traveling 82 mph at a curve restricted to 30 mph.

In May, an Amtrak Northeast Corridor train barreled into a 50 mph curve north of Philadelphia at 106 mph and derailed. Eight people were killed.

Amtrak will meet the Dec. 31 deadline for installing Positive Train Control along the Northeast Corridor, which it owns. On other routes, it will depend on freight railroads, some of which will be ready, while some won’t.

According to FRA, only freight hauler BNSF and two commuter railroads, Metrolink and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, have submitted safety plans required under the 2008 federal law.

Please share!

Positive Train Control – background, progress, funding

Repost from the Miami Herald

Rail safety technology improvements delayed by cost, complexity

Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau, May 14, 2015
Emergency personnel work at the scene of the deadly Amtrak train wreck Wednesday in Philadelphia. Federal investigators are trying to determine why the Amtrak train jumped the tracks in a wreck that killed eight people and injured dozens. Patrick Semansky – AP

Most of the nation’s railroads will not meet a Dec. 31 deadline for installing collision-avoidance technology that could have prevented Tuesday’s deadly Amtrak crash in Philadelphia.

Congress in 2008 required that railroads install positive train control by the end of this year, and although the rail industry has made progress on the $9 billion system, equipping 60,000 miles of track and 22,500 locomotives with the technology has proved to be complicated.

The technology has to work across not only the seven largest freight railroads but also 20 commuter railroads, Amtrak and dozens of smaller carriers. It requires 36,000 wireless devices that relay information to train crews and dispatchers from signals and track switches.

It also must work in densely populated regions where multiple rail lines intersect and are heavy with passenger and freight traffic, such as Chicago, Southern California, New York and New Jersey.

“Each of these systems has to be able to talk to each other,” said Ed Hamberger, the president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, an industry group.

Even lawmakers who months ago wanted to hold the industry to the 2015 deadline have softened their position in recognition that the system simply won’t be ready.

Hamberger told reporters Thursday that the industry needs another three years just to get the equipment installed, and two more to make sure it works. Of the 60,000 miles of track where the system is required, he said only 8,200 miles would be ready by year’s end.

A bill approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in March would give railroads until 2020 to complete the task. But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who wrote the legislation that contained the 2015 deadline, said a five-year blanket extension was not the answer.

“In my view, that is an extremely reckless policy,” she said in a statement Thursday. Feinstein has introduced a bill that would extend the deadline on a case-by-case basis.

The technology was not in place at the site of Tuesday’s derailment, on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the busiest passenger railroad in the country. The National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday that positive train control would have prevented Train 188 from approaching a 50 mph curve at more than 106 mph.

Eight people were killed and more than 200 were injured. It was Amtrak’s first fatal accident on the Northeast Corridor since a January 1987 crash that killed 16 people. In that instance, positive train control could have stopped a freight locomotive from running past a stop signal into the path of the Amtrak train.

The NTSB has recommended positive train control for decades. In January, the board included the technology on its “Most Wanted” list of safety improvements. It did not endorse giving railroads an extension beyond December.

Amtrak actually may finish its installation of the system on the entire 457-mile passenger rail corridor between Washington and Boston ahead of most railroads.

“We will complete this by the end of the year,” Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman said Thursday at a news conference in Philadelphia.

The rail industry supports the Senate bill that would give the companies a five-year deadline extension, and even some of the industry’s toughest critics in Congress are prepared to give it more time.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, freight hauler BNSF and Metrolink, a commuter railroad in Southern California, are positioned to meet the original deadline.

An August 2008 collision near Chatsworth, Calif., prompted Congress to pass the Rail Safety Improvement Act requiring positive train control. Twenty-five people were killed when a Metrolink commuter train ran past a stop signal and into the path of a Union Pacific freight. According to the NTSB accident report, the Metrolink engineer, who was among those killed, was texting just before the crash.

Another fatal crash, on New York’s Metro North commuter railroad in December 2013, renewed calls for positive train control. Four people were killed when a New York-bound train jumped the tracks in the Bronx. The train was traveling 80 mph when it hit a 30 mph curve.

Positive train control is designed to prevent a train from running a red signal or approaching a slow curve too fast. Accident investigators don’t yet know why Train 188 was going more than twice the appropriate speed when it derailed in Northeast Philadelphia, but they do know the accident was preventable.

“The Amtrak disaster shows why we must install positive train control technology as soon as possible,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said in a statement Thursday.

One thing Congress did not do when it required railroads to install the system was give them any money to do it. When asked Thursday how much the government had contributed to the freight railroads to assist with positive train control, Hamberger, of the Association of American Railroads, replied, “Zero.”

President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget includes $825 million to help commuter railroads install the technology. The president’s 2009 economic stimulus provided $64 million to Amtrak for its installation. But that wasn’t enough, the railroad said in a report justifying its 2014 budget request.

Overall, Amtrak has spent $110.7 million since 2008 to install positive train control.

“Additional funding to fully comply with PTC requirements is necessary,” Amtrak said.

Richard Harnish, the president of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a group that advocates for passenger rail improvements, said in a statement Thursday that positive train control was delayed because Congress gave railroads an unfunded mandate.

“Congress needs to invest in the safety of our transportation system,” he said.

Please share!