Tag Archives: train braking systems

First National Conference on Oil Train Threats – excellent report by Justin Mikulka

Repost from DeSmogBlog
[Editor:  Many thanks to Justin Mikulka for this excellent report on “Oil Train Response 2015,” nicely summarizing the important issues as well as the event.   Great photo below – click on it to enlarge so you can play Where’s Waldo.  🙂  For a local media report and some good links, see also my earlier posting.  – RS]

“We Need Not Be Polite” Hears First National Conference On Oil Train Threats

By Justin Mikulka • Wednesday, November 25, 2015 – 03:58
oil train conference
Oil Train Response 2015, 1st national conference on oil train threats, 11/14-15/15, Pittsburgh

On November 12th, I boarded a train headed to Pittsburgh, PA to attend the first national independent gathering focused on the topic of oil trains. The trip would take me through Philadelphia where an Amtrak train crashed in May resulting in eight fatalities and over 200 injuries.

There is general consensus that the accident would have been avoided if positive train control technology had been in place. In 2008, Congress mandated that positive train control be installed by the end of 2015. However, the railroads failed to do this and were recently given a three to five year extension by Congress after the rail companies threatened to shut down rail service if the mandate were enforced.

It is a reminder of the power of the rail lobbyists. Another example of this power is currently playing out in Congress. Earlier this year, the Senate voted to raise the amount of money that could go to victims of accidents such as the one in May. However, rail lobbyists and members of Congress are working to strip this change out of pending legislation.

Having covered the topic of oil trains for the past two years, none of this is surprising. The rail and oil lobbyists have been very effective at weakening new oil-by-rail regulations and achieving huge delays for any actual implementation of these changes.

In 2013, an oil train full of Bakken crude oil derailed in Lac-Megantic resulting in a fire that killed 47 people. The existing regulations will allow trains like the one in Lac-Megantic to roll on the rails until 2023.

These known risks and lack of regulations have created new activists across the continent and the Oil Train Response 2015 conference was the first time they have all come together in one place to discuss the issue and organize together. The event was sponsored and organized by The Heinz FoundationFracTracker and ForestEthics.

The first day of the conference was designed to inform the attendees about various aspects of oil-by-rail transportation and included presentations from first responders, politicians, Riverkeepers, legal experts and railroad safety consultant Fred Millar.

What You Are Up Against

Ben Stuckart is president of the Spokane city council, a city currently seeing 15 oil trains a week and facing the potential of as many as 137 a week by 2020 by some estimates. During his presentation, Stuckart described a trip he took to Washington, D.C. to meet with Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to express his concerns about the oil trains.

“We sit down and we’re talking to him and he’s like ‘well here is what you are up against.’ He goes, ‘My first day in office.  BNSF and Union Pacific just showed up and walked into our office.’ And he asked up front what’s going on, I don’t have an appointment. ‘Oh there is an open door policy.’

The railroads have an open door policy. Do you know how long it took for me to get an appointment with transportation secretary Foxx?”

This isn’t the only time Secretary Foxx learned what we “are up against.”

Earlier this year, Reuters reported that when the White House was finalizing the new regulations, Secretary Foxx requested that the regulations address the volatility of Bakken crude oil. His request was denied.

Stuckart’s recounting of Foxx’s candid explanation of the reality of regulation in Washington, D.C. is an excellent example of the power of the industry, and provides insight into why these trains continue to run despite the known risks.

We Need Not Be Polite

Much of the morning session of the first day of the conference was devoted to emergency response, featuring three different presentations on the topic. A bit later, rail safety consultant Fred Millar took to the podium and wasted no time in getting everyone’s attention. With the earlier emergency response presenters flanking him on either side of the podium, Millar did not pull any punches.

“We need not be polite with the railroads and first responders,” Millar said. And then he proceeded to point out what a farce the idea of emergency response planning is regarding Bakken oil trains.

“It’s a lie,” Millar said as he showed a slide of emergency responders operating fire hoses standing very near a black rail tank car that was on fire. Millar noted that these are public relations efforts meant to calm the public, but the reality of a Bakken oil train accident is that everyone within a half mile is evacuated and the train is allowed to burn itself out because it is too dangerous for first responders to approach. Often the fires last for days.

Millar’s presentation was enthusiastically received by the conference audience. As he delivered one of his many hard-hitting lines to applause, an audience member could be heard saying, “He’s like a preacher up there!” However, as repeatedly noted in his presentation, his opinion is that very little is being done to address the risks of oil-by-rail transportation.

They Are Our Children

Things got a bit heated in the question and answer session following Millar’s presentation. One point of contention was that the first responders maintained that they need to keep information about oil trains secret so as to not help out “the bad guys” — an idea not well received by the many people in the audience living near oil train tracks.

Raymond DeMichiei, Pittsburgh’s Deputy Coordinator of Emergency Management, sparked the biggest outcry when he stated that he didn’t see why “people need to know how many daycare centers are within the blast zone.” Among the responses was a woman yelling, “They are our children!”

As the session came to a close, a frustrated DeMichiei said, “Get ’em off the rails. I’ll be a happy guy.”  It was one point that everyone in the room could agree on.

FRA Administrator Grateful For Luck

A week before the conference, an ethanol train derailed in Wisconsin and spilled ethanol into the Mississippi River. The next day, an oil train derailed and spilled oil in a residential neighborhood in Wisconsin. On the first day of the conference, news broke that an oil train derailed near Philadelphia, although there was no spill.

Sarah Feinberg, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, commented on the accidents in Wisconsin saying, “We feel we got really lucky.” When I pointed out on Twitter that luck is currently a big part of the oil train safety plan, she responded.

While it is true that regulators are taking many steps to improve safety, it is also true that the oil and rail industries are working hard against any real improvements to safety. The dangerous oil is not being stabilized. The unsafe tank cars will be on the rails for at least eight more years. Modernized braking systems are years away and the industry is fighting that as well. And trains continue to run through many large cities.

On my train ride home from the conference, I saw many of the signature black tank cars on the rails. Some were carrying liquid petroleum gas, some ethanol and at least one was a unit train of oil cars (although likely empty as it was traveling West). The potential of an accident involving a commuter train and an oil train didn’t seem far fetched.

View from Amtrak train, photo by Justin Mikulka.

A National Movement Begins

The people gathered in Pittsburgh don’t want to rely on luck to protect their communities. They are committed to fighting for real rail safety, and they were clearly energized by this event. As Ben Stuckart said, “This is so awesome. I haven’t seen this big of a group about this very specific issue since I’ve been working on it the last four years.”

And that is good news for the 25 million people currently living within bomb train blast zones. Because if there is one lesson learned from the long delay over the implementation of positive train control, it is that this battle is likely to be a long and difficult effort.

Blog image credit: Paul Anderson
Please share!

Lawmakers Press Railroad Nominee on Safety Deadline

Repost from the New York Times

Lawmakers Press Railroad Nominee on Safety Deadline

By Ron Nixon, Sept. 17, 2015
An Amtrak train traveling from Penn Station in New York to Penn Station in Newark in August. There is a Dec. 31 deadline for railroads to start using positive train control technology, which increases safety. Credit Fred R. Conrad for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s nominee to lead the Federal Railroad Administration faced tough questioning by lawmakers on Thursday about the rail industry’s contention that it cannot meet a year-end deadline to install a safety technology meant to keep trains from derailing.

Sarah Feinberg, 37, who was nominated by Mr. Obama in May, has been acting administrator of the agency for about nine months. During that time, there have been several train crashes attributed to excessive speeds, including in May, when an Amtrak passenger train derailed in Philadelphia, killing eight people and injuring 200.

Under questioning by a Senate panel weighing her confirmation, Ms. Feinberg said the railroad administration would enforce the 2008 law that set Dec. 31 of this year as the deadline to have railroads install the technology, known as positive train control.

“On Jan. 1, we will enforce the deadline and the law,” Ms. Feinberg said. She said the agency would work with the rail companies to help them with technical and financial challenges they face in trying to install the safety technology. But she emphasized, “We do not have the authority to extend the deadline.” That authority belongs to Congress.

The deadline to install positive train control, which dominated the questions at the hearing, has become a contentious issue. Some members of Congress have proposed pushing back the deadline. A Senate bill passed in July would extend it to 2018. But many safety advocates say the industry has known of the deadline for years and should be able to install the technology on time.

A report on Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that no railroad would be able to fully install the technology by the end of the year. The investigators recommended that Congress extend the deadline. Many railroad operators say they will refuse to carry crude oil or hazardous chemicals after Jan. 1 if Congress does not do so.

At the hearing, Ms. Feinberg received tough questioning from Democrats and Republicans, who asked if the agency had contingency plans if the railroad industry did not meet the deadline.

“If you know that they aren’t going to be in compliance at the end of the year, what are you going to do?” asked Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri.

Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, said he and other panel members were frustrated by the “lack of a specific proposal concerning an extension.”

Ms. Feinberg was introduced at the hearing by Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, whom she has known since she was a child. Mr. Manchin called Ms. Feinberg “uniquely qualified to lead the agency.”

Ms. Feinberg, a former Facebook executive and White House adviser, has dealt with several high-profile rail accidents during her tenure at the railroad administration. In addition to the Amtrak wreck, a train derailment in Oxnard, Calif., killed the engineer and injured about 30 people, and an oil train derailment in West Virginia caused the evacuation of about 100 people from their homes.

During her tenure, higher domestic oil production has caused a significant increase in the amount of crude oil traveling by rail, setting off concerns about the safety of those shipments through cities and towns.

Before she became acting administrator, Ms. Feinberg’s most relevant transportation experience was the nearly 18 months she spent as chief of staff to Anthony Foxx, the transportation secretary. Mr. Foxx, whose department oversees the railroad agency, has said that Ms. Feinberg has his full confidence.

Railroad administrators without transportation experience are not unprecedented. Recent examples include Gilbert E. Carmichael, who led the agency from 1989 to 1993 and was active in Mississippi Republican politics before he became administrator. Likewise, John H. Riley, who led the Federal Railroad Administration from 1983 to 1989, worked as a Senate aide before being appointed to lead the agency by President Ronald Reagan.

During her time as acting administrator, Ms. Feinberg has issued a crude-by-rail rule that imposes significant new safety requirements and has started a partnership with Google to integrate the railroad administration’s grade crossing data into its mapping software, allowing users to receive audio and visual alerts about railroad crossings.

Please share!

Half Million California Students Attend School In Oil Train Blast Evacuation Zones

Repost from DeSmogBlog
[Editor:  See the more detailed interactive map of schools by the Center for Biological Diversity.  Note Benicia’s Robert Semple Elementary School on the Center’s map, located just 0.88 miles from a Union Pacific train route which currently carries hazardous materials and is proposed for Valero Refinery’s Crude By Rail project.  Here’s a map of Robert Semple school and the tracks.  – RS] 

Half a Million California Students Attend School In Oil Train Blast Evacuation Zones

By Justin Mikulka, September 7, 2015 – 04:58

A new analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity finds that 500,000 students in California attend schools within a half-mile of rail tracks used by oil trains, and more than another 500,000 are within a mile of the tracks.

“Railroad disasters shouldn’t be one of the ‘three Rs’ on the minds of California school kids and their parents,” said Valerie Love with the Center. “Oil trains have jumped the tracks and exploded in communities across the country. These dangerous bomb trains don’t belong anywhere near California’s schools or our children.”

Click for larger image

Current safety regulations for first responders dealing with oil trains recommend evacuating everyone within a half-mile of any incident with an oil train. This wasn’t much of a problem for the most recent oil train accident in July in Culbertson, Montana because there were only 30 people within the half-mile radius area. However, in populated areas like California, potential scenarios could involve large-scale evacuations and casualties.

In addition to the threat posed to California’s students, the report Crude Injustice on the Rails released earlier this year by ForestEthics and Communities for a Better Environment, pointed out that in California the communities within the half-mile blast zones were also more likely to be low-income minority neighborhoods.

As more communities across the country become aware of the very real risks these oil trains pose, opposition is mounting to new oil-by-rail projects as well as challenges to existing facilities.

This past week in California, the Santa Clara County board of supervisors voted to keep oil trains out, citing an “unacceptable risk to our community.”

In Minnesota, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) held a hearing on the subject and heard from concerned residents like Catherine Dorr, as reported by the local CBS station.

We’re in the 100 foot blast zone,” Dorr said. “My house and 60 townhouse residents are going to be toast if there’s an explosion.”

In Albany, New York which is the largest oil-by-rail hub on the East coast, this week a coalition of groups announced their intentions to sue the oil company transporting Bakken crude through Albany and challenge the validity of the air quality permit the company received in 2012.

And even in remote places like North Dakota, where much of the oil originates, the U.S. military is concerned about the proximity of the oil train tracks to nuclear missile facilities.

With all of this concern about the dangers of oil trains, a new report by the Associated Press (AP) paints a troubling picture about the preparedness of populated areas to respond to an oil-by-rail incident. The report was based on interviews with emergency management professionals in 12 large cities across the U.S.

It concludes, “The responses show emergency planning remains a work in progress even as crude has become one of the nation’s most common hazardous materials transported by rail.”

As noted on DeSmog, one of the reasons that the oil trains pose such a high risk is that the oil industry refuses to stabilize the oil to make it safe to transport. And the new regulations for oil-by-rail transport released this year allow for older unsafe tank cars to be used for another 8-10 years.

While the regulations require modernized braking systems on oil trains in future years, the rail industry is fighting this and a Senate committee recently voted to remove this from the regulations.

The reality is that unless there are drastic changes made, anyone living within a half mile of these tracks will be at risk for years to come.

And while oil production isn’t increasing in the U.S. right now due to the low price of oil, industry efforts to lift the current ban on exporting crude oil could result in a huge increase in fracked oil production. In turn, that oil will be put on trains that will head to coastal facilities and be loaded on tankers and sent to Asia.

Despite all of the opposition and the years-long process to complete new regulations, as the Associated Press notes, it isn’t like the emergency first responders are comfortable with the current situation.

“There could be a huge loss of life if we have a derailment, spill and fire next to a heavily populated area or event,” said Wayne Senter, executive director of the Washington state association of fire chiefs. “That’s what keeps us up at night.”

And even the federal regulators expect there are going to be catastrophic accidents. As reported by the AP earlier this year, the Department of Transportation expects oil and ethanol trains “will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades, 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.”

With the known risks and the number of accidents, so far communities in the U.S have avoided disaster. But as Senator Franken pointed out, that has just been a matter of luck.

We’ve been lucky here in Minnesota and North Dakota and Wisconsin that we’ve not seen that kind of fatalities, but we don’t want this to be all about luck,” Sen. Franken said.

As over 1,000,000 students in California start a new school year in schools where they can easily hear the train whistles from the oil trains passing through their communities, let’s all hope we keep this lucky streak going.

Please share!