Tag Archives: Rail crossings

Rail agency’s new head draws kudos, despite string of crashes

Repost from The Boston Globe

Rail agency’s new head draws kudos, despite string of crashes

By Ashley Halsey III, Washington Post, March 22, 2015
Smoke and flames erupted from railroad tank cars loaded with crude oil that derailed March 5 near Galena, Ill.

Smoke and flames erupted from railroad tank cars loaded with crude oil that derailed March 5 near Galena, Ill. Mike Burley / Telegraph Herald via Associated Press

WASHINGTON — After a string of deadly train crashes, a pair of angry US senators stood in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal four months ago to denounce the Federal Railroad Administration as a ‘‘lawless agency, a rogue agency.’’

They said it was too cozy with the railroads it regulates and more interested in ‘‘cutting corners’’ for them than protecting the public.

In the past two months, photos of rail cars strewn akimbo beside tracks have rivaled mountains of snow in Boston for play in newspapers and on television.

But the reaction by Congress to the railroad oversight agency’s performance has been extremely positive recently.

Accolades were directed at its acting head, Sarah Feinberg, even though her two-month tenure in the job has coincided with an astonishing number of high-profile train wrecks:

  • Feb. 3: Six people were killed when a commuter train hit an SUV at a grade crossing in Valhalla, N.Y.
  • Feb. 4: Fourteen tank cars carrying ethanol jumped the tracks north of Dubuque, Iowa, and three burst into flames.
  • Feb. 16: Twenty-eight tank cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire in West Virginia.
  • Feb. 24: A commuter train derailed in Oxnard, Calif., after hitting a tractor-trailer at a grade crossing.
  • March 5: Twenty-one tank cars derailed and leaked crude oil within yards of a tributary of the Mississippi River in Illinois.
  • March 9: The engine and baggage car of an Amtrak train derailed after hitting a tractor-trailer at a grade crossing in North Carolina.

At first glance, Feinberg seems an unlikely choice to replace Joseph Szabo, the career railroad man who resigned after five years in the job. She is 37, a former White House operative, onetime spokeswoman for Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and, most recently, chief of staff to the US Department of Transportation secretary.

Nothing on her résumé says ‘‘railroad.’’

‘‘Sometimes it’s good to have an outside person,’’ said Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, who got a call from Feinberg immediately after the Feb. 3 crash in Valhalla. ‘‘She’s smart, she’s a quick study, she knows how to bring people together. I think she’s the right person for the job.’’

‘‘Whether she’s had a lifetime experience riding the rails or working on the rails, she knows how to get to the crux of things and move things forward,’’ said Senator Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat who arrived at the Feb. 16 crash shortly before Feinberg did. ‘‘I was very impressed.’’

Schumer calls Feinberg ‘‘hard-nosed’’ and says she isn’t worried if she ruffles some in an industry grown accustomed to a more languid pace of change.

After the Valhalla crash, Feinberg pulled together a team to come up with a better way to address an issue that kills hundreds of people at grade crossings each year.

‘‘We’re at a point where about 95 percent of grade-crossing incidents are due to driver or pedestrian error,’’ Feinberg said. ‘‘While I don’t blame the victims, this is a good example of a problem that needs some new thinking.’’

A month later, she called on local law enforcement to show a greater presence at grade crossings and ticket drivers who try to beat the warning lights. Next, the railroad agency says it plans ‘‘to employ smarter uses of technology, increase public awareness of grade crossing safety, and improve signage.’’

‘‘When it comes to the rail industry, that is lightning fast, and it’s really impressive,’’ said a congressional aide who focuses on transportation.

Grade-crossing deaths pale in comparison to the potential catastrophe that Feinberg says keeps her awake at night. ‘‘We’re transporting a highly flammable and volatile crude from the middle of the country, more than 1,000 miles on average, to refineries,’’ she said.

All of the recent crude-oil train derailments happened miles from the nearest town. But little more than a year ago, a CSX train with six crude-oil tank cars derailed on a river bridge in the middle of Philadelphia. And an oil-fueled fireball after a derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in July 2013 left 47 people dead.

The number of tank-car trains has expanded exponentially since the start of a production boom centered in North Dakota. Seven years ago, 9,500 tank cars of Bakken crude traveled by railroad. Last year, the number was 493,126. In 2013, an additional 290,000 cars transported ethanol.

Mindful of the potential for disaster, the White House tasked the Office of Management and Budget and the Transportation Department with figuring out how to safely transport the oil. At DOT, that fell to Feinberg, who had just signed on as chief of staff to Secretary Anthony Foxx.

‘‘We found her to be very hands-on, firm but fair, and ready to work with all stakeholders in making fact-based decisions,’’ said Ed Greenberg of the Association of American Railroads. ‘‘She is someone who has quickly recognized the challenges in moving crude oil by rail. And the freight rail industry is ready to work with her” in her new role at the Federal Railroad Administration, he said.

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Minnesota DOT: More Than 300K Live in Evacuation Zones On Oil Train Routes

Repost from The West Central Tribune, Willmar, MN
[Editor: Quote: “‘It is sheer dumb luck’ that no major oil train issues have occurred in Minnesota, Senate Transportation Chairman Scott Dibble said.”  See also this MPR report, which includes a map of major rail lines in Minnesota.  – RS]

326,170 Minnesotans live near oil train tracks

By Don Davis, Forum News Service, March 19, 2015 11:56 a.m.

A pair of locomotives move past a variety of freight and tanker cars on tracks in December in Willmar.

ST. PAUL — State officials estimate that 326,170 Minnesotans live within a half mile of railroad tracks that carry crude oil, a distance often known as the danger zone.

People within a half mile of tracks usually will be evacuated if an oil train could explode or catch fire after a derailment.

The estimate, released this morning after state officials could not answer a Forum News Service question about the issue last week, is the first time Minnesotans had an idea about the number of people that state transportation and public safety officials say could be in danger of oil train explosions like those seen elsewhere in the United States and Canada.

“This data provides a greater emphasis on the need for a strong rail safety program,” Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle said. “If trains derail and an emergency occurs, many lives could be in danger.”

Zelle’s department did not immediately release data showing how many in any specific geographic area live in the danger zone.

State funds were appropriated last year to begin improving firefighter and other public safety workers’ training in dealing with crude oil explosions and spills.

“It is sheer dumb luck” that no major oil train issues have occurred in Minnesota, Senate Transportation Chairman Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, said.

Democrats are pushing for more oil train safety training money this year, as well as railroad crossing improvements, funded by increasing assessment on the state’s largest railroads, taxing more railroad property and borrowing money.

Crude oil trains travel on 700 miles of Minnesota tracks, carrying oil that originates in western North Dakota’s Bakken oilfield. Oil trains are destined for the East and Gulf coasts.

Most oil trains enter Minnesota in Moorhead and travel through the Twin Cities, although some come into Minnesota and head south through the Willmar area.

State transportation officials say each train carries about 3.3 million gallons of oil.

Most of Gov. Mark Dayton’s rail safety plan deals with improving railroad crossings, including adding overpasses and underpasses at crossings in Moorhead, Willmar, Prairie Island Indian Community and Coon Rapids. More than 70 other crossings also would be improved under the Dayton plan.

“Improved crossings will mean fewer chances for train and wheeled vehicles crashes, which will mean less likelihood of derailments,” Zelle said. “If an incident does occur, well-trained emergency personnel will be better able to protect the citizens and communities that lie along rail lines.”

None of the recent oil train explosions have occurred at road crossings. Five oil trains have derailed and caught fire in the past six weeks.

A Quebec train carrying North Dakota crude exploded in 2013, killing 47. A nonfatal derailment and fire near Casselton, N.D., brought the issue closer to home late that year.

The governor also proposes adding an oil train response training facility at the National Guard’s Camp Ripley.

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Buffalo’s Bomb Trains

Repost from ArtVoice, Buffalo, NY
[Editor: Professor Niman has written a thorough examination of crude-by-rail issues.  The local (Buffalo NY) perspective is no drawback.  This is an excellent reference article no matter where you are.  For example, if/when Benicia approves a permit for Valero's proposed Crude By Rail project, everyone uprail from here can expect to be the new Buffalo.  - RS]

Buffalo’s Bomb Trains

By Michael I. Niman, February 26, 2015

With one third of Buffalo’s population living in a disaster evacuation zone, the local media’s silence is deafening.

They span over a mile long containing up to 140 tank cars and as much as 4.5 million gallons of some of the nastiest forms of crude oil on earth, pumped from “extreme” extraction operations in North America’s new oil boomtowns. They cross rivers and transverse open plains, wilderness forest and some of the most densely populated urban areas in the country. Occasionally, with alarmingly increasing frequency, they careen off into rivers, catch fire and explode, or both. When spilled in water, their heavy oil exterminates river ecosystems. When they blow up, they release the fires of hell, with one oil train accident in 2013 wiping out most of the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and gutting its downtown. That’s when folks started referring to these explosive steel snakes as “Bomb Trains.”

This is one of the dark sides of North America’s fossil energy boom—the backstory on cheap fuel. The uptick in oil production comes from using extreme means to recklessly drill oil, using carbon-intensive methods like fracking to extract environmentally dangerous low grade oils such as Bakken crude from Montana and North Dakota. This oil, pumped from the dolomite layer of the Bakken geological formation, which also underlies portions of the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, is more volatile than conventional oils, with a lower flashpoint for explosion. When rail cars started to blow in Lac-Mégantic, The National Post reported a blast radius of over one half mile.

The United States National Transportation Safety Board estimates that about 400,000 barrels a day of this oil make the trip to Atlantic Coast refineries, with 20 to 25 percent moving through the port of Albany. Much of this Albany-bound oil moves across New York utilizing rail lines passing though the hearts of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Utica. Oil from Canada crosses the Niagara river, entering the US both in Niagara Falls, and via Buffalo’s 142 year old International Railroad Bridge, as well as taking a northern route, dropping down from Quebec on tracks passing through the Adirondack Park, including about 100 miles of Lake Champlain watershed shoreline. Non Albany-bound oil, such as some shipments from Buford, North Dakota to Houston, Texas, also take an unlikely route through Buffalo.

Though much of this oil winds up moving through New York State, federal law limits the state’s authority to regulate it. While crude oil can be stabilized to make it less volatile in transit, whether or not it receives such treatment is up to the discretion of regulators in the state that produces it—not necessarily the states through whose cities it will roll. Most of the explosive Bakken crude coming our way originates in North Dakota, where the energy industry all but owns the legislature, fertilizing the state’s anti-regulatory zeitgeist with a healthy dose of cash. The end result is, whatever passes for a state government in North Dakota fails to meet even Texas’s modest safety standards for anti-explosive fuel stabilization.

The Association of American Railroads reports that, thanks to the Bakken and Tar Sands oil booms, the amount of oil moving across the country by train has increased 45 fold (4,500 percent) from 2008 through 2013, with the volume continuing to increase through 2014 and 2015. As a result, more oil spilled from oil trains in the U.S. in 2013 than in the preceding 37 years. The number of accidents increased in 2014, and seems to be steadily increasing this year, with oil trains derailing and blowing up last week in West Virginia and northern Ontario. The Associated Press reports that the U.S. Department of Transportation now predicts an average of ten derailment accidents a year involving crude oil or ethanol tank cars over the next twenty years, “causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.” It’s no longer a matter of “if” there will a catastrophic oil train derailment.

Both the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control, and the United States Department of Transportation recommend evacuating a one half mile perimeter around accidents involving railroad tanker cars carrying flammable liquids. Karen Edelstein, a researcher and the New York Program Director for the FracTracker Alliance, mapped oil train routes across the state, adding overlays for this evacuation zone, and for schools and hospitals. Her data shows that statewide, there are 502 public schools situated within potential evacuation zones. In Buffalo, about one third of the population live within one half mile of these bomb train routes, and 27 public schools and eight private schools lie within potential evacuation perimeters as well. This includes PS 42, which serves students with disabilities, and is located adjacent to the track. Sister’s Hospital and the Buffalo Zoo are well within this perimeter, which skirts the Buffalo State and Erie County Medical Center campuses. If we freak out when it snows, how well are we going to handle what appear to be atomic fireballs, should one of these trains blow up?

While the profits from this oil boom have been privatized, much of the cost associated with reckless extraction have been externalized, meaning dumped on the public. Aside from the obvious environmental costs that we and future generation will have to bear, are the less visible emergency preparation costs that every school, hospital and municipality within a half mile of bomb train routes must now cover. In Buffalo, this means 35 schools need to work with local emergency services providers to develop plans to quickly evacuate students not just from buildings, but from neighborhoods, all with a possible backdrop of explosions, sirens and billowing smoke.

While it’s not statistically likely that a train will explode in Buffalo or any other specific place, it is a certainty that trains will keep exploding with increasing frequency across the U.S. and Canada. This means that cash strapped municipalities across the continent will have to develop plans to address a catastrophe we know for certain will befall some of our communities.

Addressing this risk involves not just planning to respond to it, and maintaining an emergency response network capable of responding, but also working to prevent such a catastrophe. A report from the Cornell University Community and Regional Development Institute points out that this involves a multitude of responsibilities, such as monitoring surface rail crossings to prevent vehicle train collisions that can lead to a derailment. Such responsibility, the report notes, usually falls to local police forces that often lack the personnel to do this. Likewise, federal regulators lack the personnel to inspect the nation’s rail infrastructure, and state Departments of Transportation lack the resources to adequately inspect bridges crossing railroad tracks. All of these costs fall not on the oil or railroad industries, but on government agencies, with much of this work not being done due to budget constraints.

What little planning there is to deal with an oil train explosion is alarming to read. A three car fire requires, according to the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control , 80,000 gallons of water for laying down a fire retardant foam blanket and cooling adjacent rail cars. Hence, the state recommends, if there is “NO life hazard and more than 3 tank cars are involved in fire OFPC recommends LETTING THE FIRE BURN unless the foam and water supply required to control is available” [sic.]. The wording here is ominous, with the availability of the required foam and water not being the default expectation, but instead, simply a possibility. This language is there for a reason, however. The Auburn Citizen, in central New York, quotes Cayuga County Emergency Management Office Director Brian Dahl, who, in response to a question about his county’s ability to respond to an oil train fire, unequivocally states, “The amount of foam and water you would need, there’s just not enough in central New York.”

While oddly inferring that maybe you should put the fire out if you have adequate foam and water, even if there is no “life hazard,” the state’s instructions don’t mention what to do if there is a life hazard, but no foam or water. Also troubling is their inference that if more than three cars are on fire you should just give up. Last week’s fires in Ontario and West Virginia saw seven and fourteen cars ablaze respectively, with each fire burning for over 24 hours. In all caps, the state’s instructions warn responders,

“All resources must be available prior to beginning suppression.”

It doesn’t give any suggestions as to what to do if you can’t move the water to the fire, or have the foam necessary to smother a dragon. None of the suggested responses are tolerable should an oil train explode in an urban environment.

See FracTracker’s map of Buffalo’s evacuation zone: tinyurl.com/NYS-derailment-risks.

Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at SUNY Buffalo State. His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.
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