Tag Archives: Rail traffic

Wall Street Journal: Fewer Oil Trains Ply America’s Rails

Repost from The Wall Street Journal

Fewer Oil Trains Ply America’s Rails

Safety concerns, low crude prices depress train traffic

By Alison Sider, April 6, 2015 3:30 p.m. ET
In March, oil-train traffic was down 7% from a year earlier. The slowdown comes amid safety concerns. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News

The growth in oil-train shipments fueled by the U.S. energy boom has stalled in recent months, dampened by safety problems and low crude prices.

The number of train cars carrying crude and other petroleum products peaked last fall, according to data from the Association of American Railroads, and began edging down. In March, oil-train traffic was down 7% on a year-over-year basis.

Railroads have been a major beneficiary of the U.S. energy boom, as oil companies turned to trains to move crude to refineries from remote oil fields in North Dakota and other areas not served by pipelines. Rail shipments of oil have expanded from 20 million barrels in 2010 to just under 374 million barrels last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

About 1.38 million barrels a day of oil and fuels like gasoline rode the rails in March, versus an average of 1.5 million barrels a day in the same period a year ago, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of the railroad association’s data.

Oil-train traffic declined 1% in the fourth quarter of 2014 as crude-oil prices started to tumble toward $50 a barrel. More recently, data from the U.S. Energy Department show oil-train movements out of the prolific Bakken Shale in North Dakota have leveled off as drillers there have begun to pump less, though oil-train shipments from the Rocky Mountain region have risen.

WSJ_Shipped-By-US_Rail_2014-15The slowdown comes as federal safety experts call for stronger tank cars. On Monday the National Transportation Safety Board recommended an aggressive five-year schedule for phasing out or upgrading older railcars used to haul crude-oil. A string of oil train accidents in recent months have resulted in spills, intense fires and community evacuations. The NTSB said railcars in use today rupture too quickly and aren’t fire-resistant enough.

A few incidents have involved more modern tank cars—the CPC-1232 model. The NTSB also said the new railcar’s design isn’t sturdy enough. “We can’t wait a decade for safer rail cars,” said NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart Monday in a letter to federal transportation regulators.

Opponents of a fast phaseout have said that if tougher standards are introduced too quickly it will create a railcar shortage and make some oil train operations unprofitable.

Many refiners, including Philadelphia Energy Solutions, say they are still committed to shipping oil on trains. Chief Executive Phil Rinaldi in December said he likes that railroads don’t require long-term contractual agreements the way pipelines do. That allows his plant managers to buy crude only when it’s needed.

With pipelines, “you have to pay for that transit whether it makes sense or not,” Mr. Rinaldi said. “With rail, that’s not the case.”

Railroad operators have warned investors that their outlook for transporting crude is slightly weaker than it was last year, said David Vernon, a rail analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

BNSF Railway Co., which is responsible for about 70% of U.S. oil-train traffic, operated as many as 10 trains a day last year, but is averaging nine a day now, a spokesman said.

Share...

    Tacoma City Councilman and County Executive form Safe Energy Leadership Alliance, call for action

    Repost from The News Tribune, Tacoma WA

    Pierce County gets all risks, no rewards for surging oil train traffic

    By Ryan Mello and Dow Constantine, October 24, 2014
    Rail Delays
    An oil-tank train with crude oil from the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota travels near Staples, Minnesota, in April. MIKE CRONIN — The Associated Press file

    As this editorial page has noted, Washington has seen a stunning increase in the amount of Bakken crude oil transported on our railroads, to an estimated 2.87 billion gallons each year. Much of that highly flammable oil rolls across the central Puget Sound region, through downtown Tacoma and past Steilacoom in aging tank cars.

    The surge in train traffic has created an unprecedented risk to our people, our economy, our traffic and our environment. Our communities assume all of the risks while big oil companies get all of the rewards.

    There’s the immediate risk to public safety when flammable fuel passes through heavily populated areas like Tacoma and Seattle and past our neighborhoods, schools and parks. Since July 2013, there have been nine serious train derailments across North America – more than we experienced during the past four decades combined. An oil-train explosion last year in Quebec, Canada, killed 47 people and wiped out half a downtown area.

    There’s also the increased risk of oil spills contaminating Puget Sound and undermining the progress we’ve made in waterfront development and cleaning up the Foss Waterway. It’s a scenario we saw earlier this year when an oil train spilled more than 20,000 gallons of crude oil into the James River just outside Lynchburg, Virginia.

    We work hard to ensure that our first responders have the equipment and training they need to respond to oil-train derailments, spills and fires. But we need state and federal action to prevent these potentially life-threatening tragedies from occurring in the first place.

    That is why we brought together more than 100 other elected leaders from across the Northwest and British Columbia to form the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance. It’s a broad coalition of local leaders from urban and rural areas who share a mission to better understand the potential safety and economic impacts from oil and coal trains, and call for stronger safety standards.

    Having multiple mile-long trains – each carrying 3 million gallons of crude oil – roll through Pierce and King counties snarls our traffic and makes it more difficult for our emergency personnel to respond to calls. The proposed increase in oil traffic would also harm our local businesses, manufacturers and farmers who rely on our limited rail capacity to transport their goods to overseas markets.

    Displacing Washington state agriculture and manufactured products that create jobs to make way for crude oil would benefit only oil companies.

    Perhaps what’s most concerning is that there is the potential for all of these risks and impacts to substantially increase over the next six years if proposed facilities are built along the Pacific coast.

    The Department of Ecology estimates that the amount of crude oil that comes through our state could triple – to nearly 9 billion gallons each year – by 2020. The number of fully loaded oil trains that cross our state each week could go from 19 to more than 100 within the next few years.

    That’s why we applaud Gov. Jay Inslee for fast-tracking the state’s Marine and Rail Oil Transportation study and the Department of Ecology for hosting a public meeting Thursday in Olympia (see box). This study shines a light on the risks and costs to our communities, and makes recommendations to strengthen disclosure of hazards and emergency preparedness.

    We urge our state lawmakers to act swiftly on these recommendations, and enact provisions that maintain public safety. The costs to protect our communities and prevent delays in rail crossings should fall to the oil industry and not local governments.

    Our long-term goal is to establish the Northwest as a global exporter of clean energy. In the meantime, we will work together to ensure that oil and coal companies don’t take up our limited rail space, put our communities at risk and harm our local economy.

    Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello and King County Executive Dow Constantine are members of the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance.
    Read more here: http://www.thenewstribune.com/2014/10/24/3448437_pierce-county-gets-all-risks-no.html?sp=/99/447/&rh=1#storylink=cpy

     

    Share...

      California’s central valley: we need to double the tracks for all these trains

      Repost from The Turlock Journal

      Time to double what’s coming down the tracks

      By Dennis Wyatt, October 10, 2014

      Get ready for more trains.

      Kern County has approved the expansion of two of its three existing or proposed oil terminals that would increase the amount of oil moving by train by 620 percent.

      This has the potential to be both a good and a bad thing.

      First the good. California due to its location and its need for specialized refineries to meet air quality standards is not benefitting from lower gas prices triggered by America’s shale oil boom While the fracking revolution has reduced the nation’s oil imports from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and other countries by 30 percent since 2004 for the rest of the United States, California imports have jumped 33 percent during the same time frame.

      Oil costs $15 more per barrel from overseas and the North Slope in Alaska than it does from domestic sources in the Lower 48 states.

      There is no pipeline that crosses the Rockies into the West to carry crude oil. At the same time, just 1 percent of California’s monthly oil needs — 500,000 barrels — is now moved by rail. Eight planned oil terminals throughout the state could push that amount to 15 million gallons a month or a third of California’s oil use.

      It costs $12 a barrel to move oil by train from the Bakken oil fields to California.

      That translates into $3 less per barrel. By tapping into North Dakota crude, California drivers could benefit at the pump.

      Currently Kern County terminals have the capacity to handle 57 tank cars of oil a day. If all of the proposed expansion is completed, the oil terminals could handle 357 tank cars a day. Each tanker holds an average of 700 barrels of crude oil.

      The most direct route from the Bakken oil fields to Kern County is via Donner Pass using the Union Pacific. That would bring significantly more oil tanks cars through Lathrop, Manteca, Ripon, Modesto, Ceres, and Turlock.

      Santa Fe serves Kern County from the southeast.

      Should all plans go forward in Kern County and Union Pacific moves the crude, it creates the potential for three 100-car oil trains a day.

      That would be on top of intermodal train traffic where truck trailers are carried on flat cars that is expected to increase as UP expands their Lathrop terminal.

      Up until the surge in shale oil production a strong argument could be made that shipping crude and dangerous chemicals by rail is substantially safer than by truck for miles covered.

      But recent crude oil train derailments and explosions have upset that premise. Shale oil crude has turned out to be more volatile than regular crude. There has been a push to retrofit existing tank cars or deploy new ones that are less susceptible to exploding in a train derailment.

      An oil train derailment in Quebec last year killed 47 people.

      That’s why increased oil movement by rail makes many people nervous for obvious reasons.

      That said a lot of potential explosive and toxic materials move daily through the Valley by rail.

      And 26 years ago Manteca had a train derailment involving several tankers carrying toxic chemicals in the early morning fog that forced the evacuation of over 2,000 people.

      Moving goods whether it is oil or a truckload of potato chips is never without risk.

      Union Pacific’s has a fairly impressive safety record and routinely monitors and upgrades their main line through the San Joaquin Valley.

      Also, surrounding fire agencies do joint drills in case the unthinkable happens.

      Even so local elected officials need to start thinking about a couple of things. Increased train traffic — whether it is oil trains, regular freight trains or intermodal trains — means more waiting at crossings. More waiting usually means more impatient motorists — a primary ingredient for train disasters.

      At the same time Altamont Corridor Express is pushing to extend passenger train service to Modesto, Turlock and eventually Merced. The original 2018 timetable now looks a tad ambitious. But sometime in the relatively near future it can happen.

      And because of that, Manteca’s elected leaders need to lobby hard to make sure ACE goes with a plan to double tracks between Modesto and Lathrop.

      It reduces scheduling conflicts for freight, oil and passenger movements. And it also will somewhat reduce waiting times at crossings. Currently, it isn’t uncommon for twice a day for trains to block the Austin Road and Industrial Park Road crossings for 15 to 20 minutes while waiting for a train to pass.

      Given the potential for eight passenger trains a day between Modesto and Lathrop once the ACE extension is up and running and even more when it connects with high speed rail at Merced to ferry passengers between there and Sacramento, double tracking becomes essential.

      This is not one of those “we can wait to see what happens” things. The coming of more oil trains is a clear signal Manteca needs to start pursuing those in charge of planning the ACE extension to make sure the route through Manteca is double tracked not just for safety’s sake but also to make taking rail a viable commuting alternative.

      Share...

        GAO report on rail shipping trends and community congestion

        Repost from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO)
        [Editor: RESEARCHERS TAKE NOTE…this newly released GAO report has significant findings regarding the upsurge in rail shipments of crude and its impact on traffic congestion on the rails and at crossings.   Unfortunately, the data is only as of 2012.  Still, the 75-page report itself is rich with references to crude by rail and charts that might prove useful.   – RS]

        Freight Transportation: Developing National Strategy Would Benefit from Added Focus on Community Congestion Impacts

        GAO-14-740: Published: Sep 19, 2014. Publicly Released: Sep 26, 2014

        What GAO Found

        Recent trends in freight flows, if they continue as expected, may exacerbate congestion issues in communities, particularly along certain corridors. As of 2012, the latest year for which data were available, national freight rail and truck traffic had approached levels of 2007 prior to the economic recession. Certain trends related to specific commodities have affected rail flows, including increases in domestic crude oil production [emphasis added].  A key negative impact of increasing freight flows is congestion at highway-rail grade crossings, where road traffic must wait to cross the tracks when trains are passing. For example, a Miami-area study found that rail crossings in the area caused delays of roughly 235,000 person-hours per year at a cost of $2.4 million. Although several communities we visited had documented long-standing concerns over freight-related traffic congestion, state and local stakeholders we met with had varying levels of quantified information regarding the extent of the impacts or costs to the community. For example, in contrast to the Miami study, another study we reviewed included some information on train counts, but did not document hours of delay or any costs associated with such delays.

        The Department of Transportation’s (DOT) efforts to implement the freight-related provisions of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) are still underway but so far do not fully consider freight-related traffic congestion. MAP-21’s freight policy goals do not explicitly include addressing freight-related traffic congestion, but MAP-21 requires DOT to identify best practices to mitigate the impacts of freight movement on communities in a national freight strategic plan, which is due in October 2015. MAP-21’s requirements and DOT’s efforts so far do not fully establish the federal role or identify goals, objectives, or performance measures in this area, which may limit the usefulness of the National Freight Strategic Plan . For example:

        DOT issued for comment a required draft primary freight network, but according to DOT and other stakeholders, MAP-21’s lack of defined purpose for the primary freight network and mileage limit of 27,000 miles hampered DOT’s ability to include in this draft network some types of roads where local traffic congestion impacts of national freight movements are often experienced, such as roads connecting ports to freeways. The significance of the 27,000 mileage limitation is not clear. DOT released a surface transportation reauthorization proposal in April 2014 that proposed establishing a multimodal national freight network with a defined purpose and with no mileage limit.

        DOT is currently developing the Freight Transportation Conditions and Performance Report , which is to support the National Freight Strategic Plan . For this and other documents, DOT established a broad goal to reduce freight-related community impacts. However, DOT did not identify clear goals, objectives, or measures related to freight-related traffic congestion in local communities due to a lack of reliable national data. Thus, a clear federal role has not been established. High-quality data are essential to supporting sound planning and decision-making. Without reliable national data, it will be difficult for DOT to establish goals and objectives and to define the extent of freight-related traffic congestion and measure performance.

        Why GAO Did This Study

        Projected increases in the transport of freight by rail and truck may produce economic benefits but also increase traffic congestion in communities. MAP-21, which contains a number of provisions designed to enhance freight mobility, is currently before Congress for reauthorization. GAO was asked to review trends in freight flows and any related traffic-congestion impacts.

        This report addresses among other things: (1) recent changes in U.S. rail and truck freight flows and the extent to which related traffic congestion is reported to impact communities, and (2) the extent to which DOT’s efforts to implement MAP-21 address freight-related traffic congestion in communities. GAO analyzed rail data from 2007 through 2012 and highway data from 2010 and 2012 and reviewed 24 freight-related traffic congestion mitigation projects at 12 locations selected on the basis of different geographical locations and sizes. The results are not generalizable. GAO also reviewed federal laws and interviewed freight stakeholders.

        What GAO Recommends

        Congress should consider clarifying the purpose of the primary freight network and, as relevant to this purpose, revising the mileage limit requirement.

        DOT should clarify the federal role for mitigating local freight-related congestion in the National Freight Strategic Plan , including a strategy for improving needed data. DOT concurred with the recommendations.

        For more information, contact Susan Fleming at (202) 512-4431 or flemings@gao.gov.
        Share...