Tag Archives: Rail Corridor Risk Management System

Reroute oil trains? History suggests it’s a long shot

Repost from The Star Tribune, Minneapolis MN

Reroute oil trains? History suggests it’s a long shot

By Jim Spencer, March 21, 2015 – 8:22 PM

Industry says reinforced cars on current routes are better than trying to avoid heavily populated areas.

A train carried Bakken oil past St. Paul. Federal rules say a single tanker car spill and fire would require a half-mile evacuation. Photo: Star Tribune

WASHINGTON – Last week, U.S. Sen. Al Franken asked the Federal Railroad Administration to consider rerouting trains carrying volatile Bakken crude oil from North Dakota so they do not pass through Minnesota’s biggest cities.

For Franken, the possibility of rerouting is an integral part of a comprehensive response to a recent rash of fiery oil train derailments that also includes stabilizing Bakken crude before it is loaded into stronger tanker cars.

For the nation’s powerful railroad lobby, however, rerouting is an unwarranted intrusion into a rail safety system that the industry says works.

Government-ordered rerouting of private rail traffic is not exactly a snowball in hell. It is more like a blizzard in Bahrain — possible, but unprecedented.

In Minnesota and around the country, “rerouting issues ought to be high on everyone’s agenda,” said rail safety expert Fred Millar, who fought unsuccessfully against railroads to move chlorine trains out of the District of Columbia. “But rerouting has been pushed off the table.”

Congress created the Federal Railroad Administration in 1966. In nearly half a century it does not appear to have forced any railroads to reroute trains around big cities for safety reasons, despite computer modeling that estimates routing changes could lower citizens’ risks to hazardous materials derailments by 25 to 50 percent and reduce casualties in an actual derailment by half.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) last week estimated that 326,170 state residents live within a half-mile of rail routes that carry oil from North Dakota across Minnesota. A half-mile is the federal emergency response evacuation zone required in the event of a single tanker car spill and fire. Multiple-car fires require up to a mile evacuation.

MnDOT data shows that 156,316 of the Minnesotans subject to evacuation in an oil train derailment live in the Twin Cities metro area. Most North Dakota oil trains enter Minnesota at Moorhead, then travel on BNSF Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway tracks into the Twin Cities before turning south along the Mississippi River and east across Wisconsin. A few oil trains travel through western Minnesota into Iowa.

Although the National Transportation Safety Board has backed rerouting in some circumstances, federal laws passed in 2007 grant private rail companies wide latitude in determining when and where trains should move, even trains carrying hazardous materials.

Canadian Pacific did not comment specifically on rerouting trains in Minnesota, but in an e-mail to the Star Tribune, the railroad said it has voluntarily complied with the federal government’s Crude by Rail Safety Initiatives and performed “route risk assessments.”

BNSF, the largest crude-by-rail hauler out of North Dakota, declined to comment on rerouting and referred questions to the rail industry’s major trade group, the Association of American Railroads.

An AAR spokesman said the industry opposes re-routing oil trains because the existing routes are the safest, even when they pass through urban areas. The industry supports more structurally secure tanker cars, track inspections and training of emergency response teams, said AAR media relations director Ed Greenberg.

BNSF also has invested heavily in track improvements to increase safety along its existing Minnesota oil train routes.

“We’re using routing technology called the Rail Corridor Risk Management System developed by the federal government,” Greenberg said. The technology measures 27 factors — including population density — to determine the safest route for moving hazardous materials, including crude oil, Greenberg said.

“Rerouting isn’t the answer,” he maintained. “All it has accomplished in the past is to force rail traffic through other communities on tracks not built to accommodate products like crude oil.”

The Federal Railroad Administration declined to discuss rerouting oil trains in Minnesota. In an e-mail statement, acting administrator Sarah Feinberg said of Franken’s request: “Over the past 18 months we have taken more than a dozen actions to enhance the safe transport of crude oil while working on a comprehensive rule that is now in its final stages of development.”

The state has little say in the rerouting debate. “The railroads are regulated by the federal government,” Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Gutknecht said. “The state does not have the authority to move, or reroute, rail lines.”

Rerouting trains away from the Twin Cities is not part of a rail safety initiative unveiled March 13 by Gov. Mark Dayton. That proposal calls for spending $330 million over 10 years, much of it in greater Minnesota, mainly to make road-rail crossings safer and to improve emergency response.

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    NY Times: Our secretive railroads

    Repost from The New York Times, Business Day
    [Editor: partway through this article there is an image with instruction to click for the inset article, “More Shipments, New Accidents and Calls for Safety“.  Don’t miss this – it details the massive increase in oil by rail accidents 2005-1014.  The inset is also available here on BenIndy at More Shipments.  – RS]

    Despite Rise in Spills, Hazardous Cargo Rides Rails in Secret

    By JAD MOUAWAD  |  APRIL 15, 2014

    Jodi Ross, town manager of Westford, Mass., and Joseph Targ, its fire chief, could learn little when a train derailed there this year. Credit: Gretchen Ertl for The New York Times

    Jodi Ross, town manager in Westford, Mass., did not expect she would be threatened with arrest after she and her fire chief went onto the railroad tracks to find out why a train carrying liquid petroleum gas derailed on a bridge in February.

    But as they reached the accident site northwest of Boston, a manager for Pan Am Railways called the police, claiming she was trespassing on rail property. The cars were eventually put back on the tracks safely, but the incident underlined a reality for local officials dealing with railroads.

    “They don’t have to tell us a thing,” Ms. Ross said. “It’s a very arrogant attitude.”

    American railroads have long operated under federal laws that shield them from local or state oversight and provide a blanket of secrecy over much of their operations. But now a rapid rise in the number of trains carrying crude oil — along with a series of derailments and explosions — has brought new concern about the risks of transporting dangerous cargo by rail.

    Local and state officials complain that they receive very little information about when hazardous materials are shipped through their communities or how railroads pick their routes. Federal interstate commerce rules give them little say in the matter and railroads are exempted from federal “right to know” regulations on hazardous material sites.


    Graphic: More Shipments, New Accidents and Calls for Safety (click on image for details)

    Under pressure to act, the Transportation Department said in February that railroads had agreed to apply the same routing rules to oil trains that they already apply to other hazardous materials, such as explosives, radioactive materials and poisonous substances like chlorine.

    This voluntary agreement, which takes effect in July, was among commitments that also included lowering speed limits to 40 miles per hour when traveling in large metropolitan areas, and providing $5 million to develop training programs for emergency responders.

    Still, the railroads remain particularly secretive about how they determine the precise routing of their hazardous cargo. The rules that apply to that cargo, which came into effect in 2008 during the Bush administration, give railroads a lot of leeway.

    Recently, resolutions seeking more information from the railroads have been approved in Seattle, Spokane and Bellingham, Wash., and are being debated by the legislatures in Washington and Minnesota, among other places.

    The problem has taken on a new urgency since federal regulators warned earlier this year that crude oil from the Bakken region in North Dakota, which is mainly transported by rail, can explode in an accident, like it did near Casselton, N.D., in December. Last July, 47 people were killed in Canada, about 10 miles from the border with the United States, when a runaway train carrying Bakken oil derailed and blew up.

    Railroads are required to look at 27 factors before they determine the “safest and most secure” route for hazardous shipments. These include the type of tracks on the route, distance traveled, the number of grade crossings and the proximity of “iconic targets” like sports arenas along the way.

    That information is fed into the Rail Corridor Risk Management System, a web-based program that examines alternative routes and ranks them. Tens of thousands of routes are examined in this manner every year.

    The software, partly financed by the federal government, considers safety requirements as well as security factors such as the threat of terrorism, according to Robert E. Fronczak, assistant vice president for environment and hazardous materials at the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s trade group.

    But the system provides little transparency, and outsiders cannot find out why a particular route is favored, for instance. Railroads do not provide any information on their route selection, citing safety concerns.

    And railroads are also allowed to consider the economic effects of their routing choices and how it would affect their customer relationships, which gives them additional flexibility in their choice.

    Gary T. Sease, a spokesman for CSX, said the results of the program’s analysis “are considered sensitive security information, and we are not able to share details.”

    Fred Millar, an independent rail consultant, said the system had not demonstrated that it reduced shipping hazards by avoiding populated areas. “The federal government has produced not one line of public assessment on the effectiveness of the law in reducing risk,” he said.

     
    Aftermath of an oil train accident in Casselton, N.D. this year. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

    Railroads are subject to periodic federal audits. But none has ever been fined over its choice of route since reviews started in 2009, according to Kevin Thompson, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.

    Some analysts cautioned that rerouting was not always possible or even desirable. Brigham A. McCown, an administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration during the Bush administration, said a railroad may decide that a shorter route through a city may have better tracks, and therefore be less risky, than a longer route with older tracks.

    “Rerouting may be less effective than some believe,” he said. “The current concern is that the volume of hazmat is growing exponentially, and the question is whether the agencies have the adequate resources to actively monitor that.”

    Railroad officials said they provide local emergency responders with a list of the 25 most hazardous commodities transported through their communities. But the recipients must sign an agreement to restrict the information to “bona fide emergency planning and response organizations for the expressed purpose of emergency and contingency planning,” a constraint that precludes them from making the information public.

    “We feel the information is getting to where it needs to get,” said Thomas L. Farmer, assistant vice president for security at the Association of American Railroads. “It should be on a need-to-know basis. Public availability of highly detailed information is problematic from a security perspective.”

    In 2005, the District of Columbia and a handful of other communities sought to stop the traffic of hazardous products in their city centers. But the ban was successfully challenged in federal court by CSX.

    “It’s hard for the regulator and industry not to become somewhat comfortable with each other’s dance moves — like in an old marriage,” said Reuven Carlyle, a representative in the Washington State Legislature and chairman of the House finance committee. “But you shouldn’t have double-secret nondisclosure agreements. Information is not a luxury. Regular people have a right to this information.”

    The National Transportation Safety Board recently recommended that railroads “avoid populated and other sensitive areas” when shipping hazardous materials, something they are not required to do today.

    Little oil was transported by trains just five years ago. Today, about 784,000 barrels a day of oil, or 11 percent of domestic production, goes on trains, according to the Association of American Railroads, and those figures are expected to keep growing in the next decade. Carrying mostly oil from the Bakken, these trains cross the country to reach coastal refineries.

    Oil trains regularly run through Minneapolis and St. Paul, for instance, instead of using bypass tracks to the west, according to Frank Hornstein, a Democrat in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

    Railroad officials say there is no need for tighter regulation. They argue that the industry has made big investments in recent years to upgrade tracks and that train safety has improved.

    But critics say the federal government has been too slow to address the danger posed by these new shipments.

    “There is an unwillingness to use any kind of enforcement power at the federal level,” said Mike O’Brien, a Seattle City Council member who sponsored a resolution seeking greater disclosures from the industry. “The railroads have a lot of protections through federal statutes. That’s the ongoing challenge we face as cities.”

    A version of this article appears in print on April 16, 2014, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Despite Rise in Spills, Hazardous Cargo Rides Rails in Secret.
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