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MUST READ: Hauling crude oil may be causing train tracks to fail

Repost from the Los Angeles Times

Why are so many oil trains crashing? Track problems may be to blame

Ralph Vartabedian, October 7, 2015
Oil train derailment

Smoke and flames erupt from the scene of a train derailment March 5, 2015, near Galena, Ill. A BNSF Railway freight train loaded with crude oil derailed in a rural area where the Galena River meets the Mississippi. (Mike Burley / Associated Press)

The only sign of trouble aboard a Norfolk Southern train, hauling roughly 9,000 tons of Canadian crude in western Pennsylvania last year, was a moderate sway in the locomotive as it entered a bend on the Kiskiminetas River.

The first 66 cars had passed safely around the curve when the emergency brakes suddenly engaged, slamming the train to a stop. The conductor trudged back nearly a mile through newly fallen snow to see what happened.

Twenty-one cars had derailed, one slamming through the wall of a nearby factory. Four tank cars were punctured, sending 4,300 gallons of crude pouring out of the tangled wreckage.

Freight train derailment

Cars are seen from a freight train derailment on Feb. 13, 2014, in Vandergrift, Pa. (Darrell Sapp / Associated Press)

The cause of the accident in North Vandergrift was identified as a failure in the rails — not aging or poorly maintained tracks, but a relatively new section laid less than a year earlier.

The February 2014 crash fits into an alarming pattern across North America that helps explain the significant rise of derailments involving oil-hauling trains over the last three years, even as railroads are investing billions of dollars in improving the safety of their networks. A review of 31 crashes that have occurred on oil trains since 2013 puts track failure at the heart of the growing safety problem.

Track problems were blamed on 59% of the crashes, more than double the overall rate for freight train accidents, according to a Times analysis of accident reports. Investigators and rail safety experts are looking at how the weight and movements of oil trains may be causing higher than expected track failures.

The growing number of trains hauling crude oil from Canada and the Northern Plains are among the heaviest on the rails today, many extending more than 100 cars in length and weighing a cumulative 19,000 tons or more.

Not since the early days of John D. Rockefeller’s oil trust have railroads played such a central role in moving oil from wells to refineries. Oil shipments by rail have soared — an 18-fold increase between 2010 and 2014 — as domestic oil production has escalated faster than the construction of new pipelines to carry it to market.

Concerns about the safety of hauling crude began to rise after the horrific Lac-Megantic accident in Quebec in July 2013 that left 47 people dead and the city’s downtown in ruins.

The Federal Railroad Administration is preparing in coming weeks to issue a new set of initiatives to address the track problems, after previously clamping tighter restrictions on tank car designs and railroad operations. But solving the track problems could be a formidable challenge.

Oil train crashes since 2013

Infographic: Oil train crashes since 2013

Sarah Feinberg, chief of the Federal Railroad Administration, said the agency is working hard to improve safety, but preventing accidents that result from defective track involves finding a needle in every haystack along thousands of miles of track.

“We have been incredibly lucky that the accidents have happened mostly in rural areas,” she said. “Some of them have been very close calls.”

The crashes have occurred as the nation’s railroad system is being asked to do more than at any time in history, putting additional wear and tear on the tracks. Since 2001, railroads have seen a modest 12% increase in the number of cars they haul, but a 24% jump in the more comprehensive measurement of cargo that looks at the weight and train mileage the system has to bear, known as ton-miles, according to industry data.

Though railroads have significantly improved safety in general, the oil train accidents are a worrisome trend in the opposite direction and not fully understood.

Of the 31 crashes involving crude or ethanol since 2013, 17 were related to track problems and 12 a mix of other causes. The cause of the two other crashes remains unclear. The count is based on both final or preliminary government and railroad investigations that were collected by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act or in U.S., Canadian and railroad company filings.

About two-thirds of the accidents resulted in spills, fires or explosions, a record that has already prompted regulators to demand stronger tank cars and other safety measures.

Weight, oil sloshing and cold temperatures are among the issues that might be exacerbating the problem, according to rail safety experts.

Investigators at Safety Transportation Board Canada, which is investigating the eight accidents that have occurred in that country, are beginning to suspect that the oil trains are causing unusual track damage.

“Petroleum crude oil unit trains transporting heavily loaded tank cars will tend to impart higher than usual forces to the track infrastructure during their operation,” the safety board said in a report this year. “These higher forces expose any weaknesses that may be present in the track structure, making the track more susceptible to failure.”

Rick Inclima, safety director at the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, also said that oil trains could be creating unique stresses on the track. “You can certainly get some rhythmic forces in … oil trains that you might not see on a mixed freight train with cars of different sizes, weights and commodities,” he said.

The nation’s major railroads are investing record amounts of money to upgrade their tracks and improve safety. The seven class-one railroads, which haul the majority of the nation’s freight, are spending $29 billion this year on their systems, nearly double the level of 2001, according to the American Assn. of Railroads. The trade group did not have any response to The Times analysis of oil train accidents, though it said its member companies exceed federal requirements for inspection and safety.

But that has not eliminated the problem. While all types of derailments dropped 17% over the last three years, there are still more than three every day across the nation, involving trains carrying a variety of freight, according to federal safety data. Bad track accounts for about 27% of overall accidents, less than half the rate that track problems are contributing to oil train accidents.

Though railroad technology may seem antiquated in a digital age, it relies on incredible precision to control monstrously heavy loads. The track in North Vandergrift, Pa., where the Norfolk Southern accident occurred, carries about 30 million tons of freight every year.

The relentless pounding plays havoc with any metallurgical flaw. Wooden ties deteriorate as they age. And other track components crack.

Investigators attributed the Pennsylvania derailment to a “wide gauge” failure, in which the rails were pushed too far apart to keep the wheels on the tracks.

The freight tracks in the U.S. and most of the world are supposed to be 56.5 inches apart, a width known as the gauge. Just three inches of movement can cause a derailment. And even if tracks conform to federal standards, they can separate under the force of a heavy train.

“Wide gauge” is the single largest cause of accidents involving track defects. In the case of the Pennsylvania derailment, it was broken spikes that caused the rail to widen, even though the track had been replaced in 2012, according to Federal Railroad Administration officials.

Private railroad experts have suggested that the sloshing of oil inside the cars may also be involved in the derailments.

Tank cars are only partially filled with oil, allowing for expansion if the temperature increases. The tanks have internal baffles, but the liquid can still slosh as the cars move, causing higher dynamic loads, said Bill Keppen, an independent rail safety expert. “Sloshing increases the stress on the track,” he said.

Federal safety experts said if sloshing does have an effect, they do not consider it significant.

The Times examination of accident reports also shows the large majority of derailments occurred in below freezing temperatures, ranging down to 23 below zero in a crash this year in Ontario.

As temperatures drop, steel rails progressively shrink, amplifying the potential for any existing defect to cause a failure, FRA safety experts said in interviews. Frozen ballast, the crushed rock that forms the rail bed, also causes rail to undergo greater shocks under the load of heavy trains.

Federal regulators and the industry are trying to improve safety, but opinions are sharply divided about exactly what measures are needed.

The Federal Railroad Administration, for example, has ordered that crude-carrying trains can travel at no more than 40 miles per hour in urban areas. But the North Vandergrift train was going only 36 mph. Nineteen of the trains whose speeds are known were moving 40 mph or slower, and no train was going faster than 50 mph, records show.

The railroad administration has increased its track inspections and railroads have agreed to increase their own inspections, according to Matthew Lehner, the agency’s communications director.

“In the coming weeks, the Federal Railroad Administration plans to announce additional steps to prevent crude oil train derailments,” Lehner said.

Critics say that many of the safety initiatives adopted so far reflect a policy aimed at mitigating the damage caused by derailments rather than preventing them.

“The attention has changed,” said Brigham McCown, former chief of the federal agency that sets tank car standards. “I hear people say, ‘It happens, they derail.’ I think that is an untenable position. As a safety regulator, I don’t think you can ever say, ‘Things blow up,’ or ‘Things crash.’ I believe the Department of Transportation has myopically focused on incident mitigation. Prevention should be the first question they should address.”

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McKeesport incident among derailments that prompt Sen. Casey to push ‘crude-by-rail’ rule

Repost from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

McKeesport incident among derailments that prompt Casey to push ‘crude-by-rail’ rule

By Patrick Cloonan, Feb. 27, 2015, 5:26 a.m.

Train cars hang off the side of a railroad bridge at the site of a train derailment in McKeesport on Sunday, June 8, 2014. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review

A June 7 CSX freight train derailment on a bridge overlooking the Marina at McKees Point was one of at least three in the last 13 months on Southwestern Pennsylvania tracks.

That and other incidents — including last week’s West Virginia tanker accident — prompted U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton, to call on federal officials to speed up implementation of a “crude by rail” rule governing oil shipments by freight trains.

“Crude oil shipments by rail have increased drastically over the past several years, largely due to the rise of oil production in North Dakota,” Casey wrote to Shaun Donovan, director of the federal Office of Management and Budget, in a letter released Thursday. “Large quantities of this oil travel through Pennsylvania and other states on a daily basis and are shipped by older rail cars that are prone to rupture.”

That included a Feb. 16 derailment of a CSX train carrying 100 tankers of crude oil through Mt. Carbon, W.Va., 30 miles southeast of Charleston.

Nineteen cars caught fire, oil leaked into the nearby Kanawha River, one house burned to the ground and at least one injury was reported.

Standards for such shipments have been devised by the federal Department of Transportation, with help from freight carriers.

“This is a complex issue with railroads working with policymakers to set the rules and with oil shippers to properly classify tank car contents,” Association of American Railroads spokesman Ed Greenberg said. “The federal government’s long-awaited rules will not only provide certainty, but we also feel (it will) chart a new course for ensuring the safer movement of crude oil by rail.”

The proposal must be reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget, which said it needs until May to finalize the rule.

“We know that rail transportation is crucial to our economy,” Casey said. “Millions of Americans live near these rail lines and have a right to expect … every step to protect them.”

Casey said he was addressing the Democratic Obama Administration and Republicans who control Congress. He said he pushed hard for funding passed last year that opens the door to hiring 15 new rail and hazardous material inspectors and retaining 45 rail safety positions.

“And we can use more,” the senator said.

Others heard him including the Association of American Railroads, a policy, research and technology entity whose members include all major North American freight carriers and Amtrak.

“America’s freight rail industry supports tougher tank car specifications and, for years, our association has called for stronger federal standards for tank cars,” Greenberg said.

As the Department of Transportation formulated its proposal last fall, the association submitted to the department what it called a comprehensive safety package for stronger tank cars.

Greenberg said it addressed increased shell thickness, use of jacket protection, thermal protection, full-height head shields, appropriately sized pressure relief devices, bottom-outlet handle protection and top-fittings protection.

CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle echoed Greenberg, saying CSX collaborated with the association and other industry partners in developing comments on the proposed new rules.

“Railroads have dramatically improved safety over the last three decades,” Greenberg said. That includes an investment of more than $575 billion since 1980 into the nation’s freight rail network.

Greenberg said freight railroads project spending $29 billion this year on safety-enhancing infrastructure and equipment.

“That said, we recognize more has to be done to ensure the safe movement of this product,” Greenberg said.

That came to light at 10:56 p.m. June 7 when a CSX train headed from New Castle to Connellsville crossed the trestle alongside the Jerome Bridge. Ten of 88 train cars derailed.

Three hung for a time over the Youghiogheny River as well as boats docked at the Marina.

“You could tell the wheels were not on the rail, even before the crash,” said Ashley Bound of Elizabeth. “We were in a boat about 50 feet away and, when I saw all the sparks, I said: ‘I don’t think that’s supposed to happen.’ I was freaking out. It was scary.”

Officials said no one was injured, no chemicals spilled and most cars were empty or carried scrap metal. CSX said a car with “light petroleum” remained upright and did not leak.

Casey referred to derailments last month in Uniontown and Philadelphia as well as the Feb. 13, 2014, derailment of 21 Norfolk Southern rail cars hauling propane gas and Canadian crude oil through Vandergrift.

There cars crashed into the MSI Corp. specialty metals factory. One car spilled 1,000 gallons of heavy crude, but no spillage reached the nearby Kiskiminetas River.

On Jan. 22 in Uniontown seven cars filled with sand for use in the Marcellus shale industry turned over within 2 feet of homes along Locust and East Penn streets.

According to various reports, 11 cars in a CSX train came off the tracks in South Philadelphia on Jan. 31, but the cars remained upright and no chemical leaks were detected.

“Pennsylvania has borne the brunt of many of these derailments,” Casey said. “It’s important for residents to have the peace of mind in knowing that the necessary actions are being taken to improve safety on our nation’s railways.” Carriers serving area towns say they agree.

“Safety is CSX’s highest priority, and we are sensitive to the concerns of the communities where we operate regarding the increasing volume of crude oil that is being moved by train,” Doolittle said.

“Norfolk Southern every day shoulders the obligation of being a common carrier, which means when a shipper gives us a hazardous materials tank car that meets current federal safety standards, we must haul it,” Norfolk Southern spokesman Dave Pidgeon said. “No matter what comes out of proposed new regulations, Norfolk Southern wants the safest tank car to be moving on our network because safety is our top priority — safety of our employees, safety of our customers’ products, safety of the communities in which we operate.”

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Senate appropriations bill takes on safety of shipping oil by rail

Repost from TribLIVE, Pittsburgh, PA

Safety of shipping oil by rail addressed in appropriations bill

By Jodi Weigand, Dec. 17, 2014

Provisions pushed by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey to improve the safety of crude oil shipments are included in the final version of the appropriations bill that will fund the federal government for the next nine months.

Casey began pushing for more money for rail safety after three train derailments in the state this year, including one in Vandergrift in February.

“This program was not included in the original House bill, so it needed a strong push from the Senate (and) Casey to make it in the final package,” said Casey’s spokesman John Rizzo.

The $54 billion in appropriations for transportation, housing and urban development includes funding for 15 new rail and hazardous material inspectors. It also calls for $3 million to expand the use of automated track inspections for 14,000 miles of track and $1 million to pay for online training for first responders on how to handle train derailments.

The Senate on Saturday approved the 2015 Omnibus Appropriations Bill that the House narrowly passed Thursday.

Casey’s bill requires the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to finalize regulatory action to change tank car design standards by Jan. 15. The PHMSA began the changes in September 2013.

Among the new requirements is that newly manufactured and existing tank cars that are used to haul crude oil have puncture resistance systems and protection for hatches and valves that exceed the existing design requirements for the DOT-111 tankers, an old-style variety that critics say are too flimsy.

In the event that there is a trail derailment that involves a crude oil spill, new funding will ensure that first responders have better training on how to handle it.

The money in the bill for a web-based hazardous materials emergency response training curriculum will help ensure that communities that lack the resources to send their first responders to training sites can still access education to contain oil spills and prevent danger to people and communities.

“Funding will also be used to expedite implementation of a remote automated track inspection capability to increase inspection mileage at a reduced cost,” Rizzo said. “There is too much track for manual inspections to cover it all.”

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, said she’s pleased the bill would mandate comprehensive oil spill response plans for railroads and provide funding focusing on providing safety training.

“I worked to set a deadline for the Department of Transportation to issue new safety standards for tank cars next month and worked to protect smaller communities without sufficient resources to respond to oil trains,” Murray said.

A federal investigation into the Feb. 13 derailment and oil spill in Vandergrift determined that “widening,” or spreading of the rails on that section track, was the probable cause.

The report said that speed did not cause the derailment. However, two railroad experts said it was a contributing factor because speed could have caused track problems on the curve.

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