Tag Archives: Traffic

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...

    Bill Moyers & Company: America’s Exploding Oil Train Problem

    Repost from Bill Moyers & Company

    America’s Exploding Oil Train Problem

    by John Light, September 2, 2014
    FILE - In this July 16, 2013, file photo, railroad oil tankers are lined up at the Port of Albany, in Albany, N.Y. While the federal government has ordered railroads to give states details about shipments of volatile crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken shale region, New York officials haven't decided whether to share that information with the public. (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)
    In this July 16, 2013, photo, railroad oil tankers are lined up at the Port of Albany, in Albany, NY. (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)

    If you reside in the US, there’s around an eight percent chance that you live in an oil train’s blast zone. And there’s a fight going on at the state and federal levels, between monied interests and regulatory agencies, over efforts to ensure that these trains — which have shown a tendency to burst into flames — will be relatively safe.

    The increased use of hydraulic fracturing — fracking — has made oil that was previously inaccessible available to drillers. The crude then has to make its way to refineries, and while the boom in pipeline projects has received quite a bit of attention, roughly 60 percent of it travels by rail.

    On Friday, California legislators passed a bill that would require railroads to tell emergency officials when oil trains filled with explosive Bakken crude — oil from a particularly productive region in western North Dakota — would pass through the state. The law reflects growing concern, across America, about the dangers of these trains moving through dense communities, including Sacramento, California’s capital.

    Oil tanker cars move along a web of routes that crisscross the United States. In 2013, about 400,000 cars made the journey, a 4,000 percent increase over the previous five years. The boost in oil cars has been so great that less lucrative industries are having trouble finding rail transport for their products. In March, General Mills announced that it had lost 62 days of production on such favorites as Cheerios because the trains that had shipped agricultural products were being leased by the fossil fuel industry.

    Most oil reaches its destination without any problems, but as production has skyrocketed, the railroads have become increasingly taxed. Those who live near railways have noticed the uptick, with trains rumbling through towns much more frequently, and at much higher speeds.

    Last July, a tanker train filled with North Dakota crude derailed in the middle of the night in Lac-Mégantic, a small Canadian town near the border with Maine; the resulting inferno killed 47 people. Since then, derailments in Casselton, North Dakota, and Lynchburg, Virginia, have led to evacuations. The Lac-Mégantic disaster spurred protests from fire chiefs and town officials who said that they were ill-equipped to deal with a possible derailment.

    In the year since, officials have moved to formalize several safety measures. This July, the Obama administration proposed a plan that involves banning certain older tank cars, using better breaks on car, restricting speeds and possibly rerouting trains.

    That first point, phasing out old tank cars, is a key area of contention. For the most part, the opposition isn’t coming from the railroads; it’s the oil companies that lease the tank cars that are fighting the new regulations. As Bloomberg Businessweek’s Matthew Philips explained earlier this summer:

    It’s helpful to understand the three industries with something at stake here: railroads, energy companies, and tank-car manufacturers. The railroads own the tracks but not the tank cars or the oil that’s inside. The oil often belongs to big energy companies such as refiners or even trading firms that profit from buying it near the source—say, in North Dakota—and selling it elsewhere. These energy companies tend to lease the tank cars from large manufacturing companies or big lenders such as General Electric (GE) and CIT Group (CIT).

    Although it is never their oil on board, the railroads usually end up in the headlines when something goes wrong. That’s why they have been eager for a rule to make energy companies use stronger tank cars. Meanwhile, the oil industry has been busy issuing studies trying to prove that the oil coming out of North Dakota is safe enough to travel in the existing tank cars. The energy lobby also thinks railroads need to do a better job of keeping the trains on the tracks. Tank-car manufacturers, meanwhile, simply want some clarity around what kind of cars they need to build.

    Canada, following the Lac-Mégantic disaster, announced plans to phase out one older tank car that has been linked to several accidents over the next three years; the Obama administration proposal would do it in two.

    But the oil industry doesn’t want that. Leading the charge is the American Petroleum Institute, an organization that, so far in 2014, has spent $4 million lobbying regulators and Congress. They’ve pushed back against labeling Bakken crude as more hazardous than other crude oil, even though many studies have found that it is.

    Environmental groups blame this lobbying effort for several weaknesses in the proposed rules. For one, they would only apply to trains that have 20 or more carloads of Bakken crude. “If the rule is approved as drafted, it would still be legal to transport around 570,000 gallons (the equivalent of the fuel carried by seven Boeing 747s) of volatile Bakken crude in a train composed of 19 unsafe, [aging] tank cars—and none of the other aspects of the new rules, including routing, notification, train speed, and more would apply,” wrote Eric de Place of the sustainability think-tank Sightline Institute, who also criticized the proposal for not immediately banning older tankers.

    And even if the regulations were to be put in place despite the API’s attempts to weaken them, there’s the distinct possibility that regulators will fall short. The government has often taken a hands-off approach in determining what gets shipped, and how — and in enforcing existing rules requiring that officials in the cities it passes through be informed that potentially hazardous shipments are coming. In These Times reported that government inspections to make sure railroads are properly labeling the product they are shipping (the Bakken crude was improperly labeled in the Lac-Mégantic disaster) are supposed to be unannounced, but are sometimes pre-arranged. Meanwhile, railroads are cutting back on the number of crew members manning trains, a move that some workers feel will lead to less safe travel.

    “No one would permit an airliner to fly with just one pilot, even though they can fly themselves,” wrote John Previsich, the president of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation union’s transportation devision. “Trains, which cannot operate themselves, should be no different.”

    John Light blogs and works on multimedia projects for Moyers & Company. Before joining the Moyers team, he was a public radio producer. His work has been supported by grants from The Nation Institute Investigative Fund and the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Awards, among others. A New Jersey native, John studied history and film at Oberlin College and holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University
    Share...

      Nat’l Ass’n of Railroad Passengers: oil trains blocking Amtrak trains

      Repost from The Hill
      [Editor:  This January post shows what can happen when local officials and companies like Valero have no control over railroad companies’ shipping schedules.  – RS]

      Oil shipments blocking Amtrak trains

      By Keith Laing, January 29, 2014

      Freight trains carrying crude oil shipments are blocking Amtrak trains in the northwest United States, according to complaints from the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP).

      The passenger railway advocacy group wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx that oil-by-rail shipments are blocking trains on Amtrak’s Empire Builder route, which runs from Chicago to Portland and Seattle.

      Crude oil train shipments have come under fire after a series of derailments. The railroad passenger association said trains that stay on the tracks are also causing problems for Amtrak passengers.

      “Delays of up to eight to ten hours have plagued the Empire Builder, inflicting extreme inconvenience—often at considerable personal expense—to literally thousands of Amtrak passengers and their families,” NARP President Ross Capon wrote to Foxx.

      “While severe weather has played a contributing factor, the delays are in large part due to the logjam of rail congestion caused by hundreds of additional freight trains transporting crude oil extracted in North Dakota to refineries in other parts of the U.S.,” Capon continued.

      Capon said NARP “recognizes the key role that America’s freight railroads play in fueling economic activity in the U.S.”

      But he said that Amtrak and the freight rail company that operates the tracks the Empire Builder line runs on should be able to work out a better scheduling agreement.

      “Amtrak and host railroad BNSF Railway Company must come together to ensure that the Empire Builder’s passengers have continued access to adequate, reliable public transportation,” he said. “The Empire Builder serves communities in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington State, and Oregon, with some 18.8 million people living within 25 miles of an Empire Builder station. The train acts as a vital transportation link for hundreds of rural communities to essential services in urban population centers.”

      Supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline have said there would be less crude oil shipment by rail if the controversial project was allowed to be built. The Obama administration has resisted calls for constructing the pipeline, citing environmental concerns, even as it plans to ramp up its regulation of oil trains.

      Capon said it was particularly important for officials to figure out a way to make service reliable on Amtrak’s northwest line because it travels through several smaller states that have sparse air service.

      “Amtrak’s Empire Builder carried 536,400 passengers in fiscal year 2013 along a 2,256 mile corridor that has little in the way of transportation alternatives, and regularly experiences extreme winter weather conditions that close down airports and road networks,” he said. “Without a fully functioning rail service, many of these Americans will be effectively stranded.”

      Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told The Hill that the company is dealing with the oil train-induced delays by shipping stations in Grand Forks, Devil Lake, Rugby, N.D. to make up time on its overnight cross country trip.

      Magliari said Amtrak was negotiating with BNSF Railway for an equitable solution.

      “We met two weeks ago with BNSF,” he said. “This dates back well before current winter weather blast. They told us they are making capacity improvements, but we should not expect to see an improvement in how our trains managed with their tracks until later this year.”

      Magliari said the detours around trains that are carrying crude oil “requires passengers to disembark in Fargo, N.D. at 3:35 a.m. to get on chartered buses to take them to the three missing stops.

      “We’re going to keep working with BNSF to try to mitigate these delays and inform our passengers what’s going on, but we’re concerned about this for our passengers and for our business,” he said. “This is our most popular, by ridership, overnight route in the country. It’s going to celebrate 85th anniversary later this month.”

      Amtrak acquired the Empire Builder route from a private rail company when it was created by Congress in 1971.

      A BNSF spokeswoman told the Grand Forks Herald newspaper that it was “working” with Amtrak to find a solution to the delays.

      The company blamed the train backup on winter weather in the midwest U.S.

      “BNSF service is being impacted by extreme cold and winter weather conditions across the Midwest,” BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth told the North Dakota paper.

      “The extreme cold and snow are presenting significant operating challenges for our operations,” McBeth continued. “To recover, we are operating our westbound trains on our route through New Rockford and eastbound traffic through our Devils Lake route. We will continue working with Amtrak as our network recovers.”

      Share...