Tag Archives: West Virginia

AP: Railroads beat back new safety rules after derailments

Repost from the Boston Herald

AP: Railroads beat back new safety rules after derailments

By Matthew Brown and Michael Kunzelman, December 05, 2015
FILE -In this Monday, Feb. 23, 2015, file photo, clean up continues near Mount Carbon, W.Va., where a train derailed and sent a tanker with crude oil into the Kanawha River. A little-known truth about North American railroads: No rules govern when rail becomes too worn down. Since 2000, U.S. officials blamed rail wear as the direct cause of 111 derailments causing $11 million in damage. (AP Photo/Chris Tilley, File)

A pair of train derailments in 2012 that killed two people in Maryland and triggered a fiery explosion in Ohio exposed a little-known and unsettling truth about railroads in the U.S. and Canada: No rules govern when rail becomes too worn down to be used for hauling hazardous chemicals, thousands of tons of freight or myriad other products on almost 170,000 miles of track.

U.S. transportation officials moved to establish universal standards for when such steel gets replaced, but resistance from major freight railroads killed that bid, according to Associated Press interviews with U.S. and Canadian transportation officials, industry representatives and safety investigators.

Now, following yet another major accident linked to worn-out rails — 27 tanker cars carrying crude oil that derailed and exploded in West Virginia earlier this year — regulators are reviving the prospect of new rules for worn rails and vowing they won’t allow the industry to sideline their efforts.

“We try to look at absolutely every place where we can affect and improve safety,” said Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg. “Track generally is the place that we’re focusing at the moment, and it’s clearly overdue. Rail head wear is one place in particular that we feel like needs to be addressed as soon as possible.”

An official announcement on the agency’s intentions to revisit rail wear is expected by the end of the year.

In the meantime, federal regulators haven’t taken the positive steps that they need to, said Ronald Goldman, an attorney for the families of the two 19-year-old women who died in a 2012 derailment outside Baltimore.

“It’s a lack of will, not a lack of ability, in my opinion,” he added.

Industry supporters argue that the seven major freight railroads in the U.S. and Canada are in the best position to know what is going on with their lines, including when they need to be replaced or have the maximum speeds for trains traveling on them lowered. They also note a long-term decline in accidents that has reduced the frequency of derailments by more than 40 percent since 2000.

All sides agree it’s difficult to pinpoint how many accidents are tied to worn rail. Since 2000, U.S. officials blamed rail wear as the direct cause of 111 derailments causing $11 million in damage.

That’s less than 1 percent of all accidents, yet it masks a broader safety dilemma: Years of massive loads rolling over a rail will exacerbate defects in the steel, such as cracks or fractures. Investigators ultimately list the defect as the cause of a derailment, but it might never have been a problem if the rail had not been worn down.

“Rail defects are internal and rail wear is external, and when external meets internal, that’s when problems may arise,” said John Zuspan of Track Guy Consultants, a Pennsylvania firm that offers track inspections, safety training and other services for railroads.

Two accident causes in particular have the strongest correlation with worn-out rails: “detail fractures” that result from fatigued metal, and “vertical splits” in the head of the rail, where it makes contact with a train’s wheels, according to the FRA.

Those problems caused a combined 1,200 derailments with $300 million in damages, three deaths and 29 people injured in the U.S. between 2000 and the present, according to accident records reviewed by the AP.

Among them was the July 2012 derailment of a Norfolk Southern Railway train hauling ethanol and other products through Columbus, Ohio. Seventeen cars derailed, including three hauling highly flammable ethanol that exploded into flames, triggering an evacuation of surrounding neighborhoods.

A month later, another accident occurred involving a CSX Transportation train hauling coal over a bridge along Main Street in Ellicott City, Maryland, outside Baltimore. Twenty-one cars derailed when the company’s worn-down rail split beneath the weight of the coal cars. The two college students sitting on the bridge died, crushed by thousands of pounds of spilled coal.

The victims’ families reached a settlement with CSX last year for undisclosed terms. Goldman, the families’ attorney, said he pressed federal officials for a forum that would allow his clients to testify about the issue, but “nothing really happened.”

A month after the CSX derailment, federal regulators asked the Rail Safety Advisory Committee — a panel created by the Railroad Administration to include the industry and others in fashioning safety rules — to craft new standards to reduce the risks of worn-down rail. The committee set up a 116-person working group to tackle the problem, made up of industry representatives, government officials, consultants, researchers and railroad worker unions.

The group included 55 representatives from the major freight railroads and their industry organization, the Association of American Railroads. The FRA had 14 seats at the table and their counterparts from Transport Canada had five.

Following several meetings in 2012 and 2013, the group — which required consensus before recommending action — agreed on voluntary guidance for companies to manage rail wear, but no new regulations.

“There was certainly a lot of pushback and a lot of political pressure put on FRA not to adopt regulations for rail wear,” said Richard Inclima, director of safety for the union that represents track inspectors and a member of the working group. “Rail wear limits were on the table. The industry raised a lot of arguments against rail wear limits.”

“The industry doesn’t want to be regulated,” he added. “That’s no secret.”

The railroads’ opposition was confirmed by others involved with the group’s work including from the National Transportation Safety Board, the FRA and Transport Canada.

Association of American Railroads spokesman Ed Greenberg said the railroads were “unaware of any science-based data supporting rail wear limits.”

NTSB investigator Richard Hipskind, who took part in the Ellicott City and Columbus accident investigations and later served on the rail wear working group, said more research would be needed to establish universal standards.

Railroads have their own internal standards for rail wear, and have replaced more than 30,000 miles of rail since 2010, according to reports submitted by the major railroads to the U.S Surface Transportation Board, a semiautonomous agency under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Standards vary among railroads and are complicated by differences in how much weight a given line bears, whether it’s in a wet or dry climate, and if the line goes through mountains or involves lots of turns. Those variables can make the difference between well-worn rail that’s still safe and routes that poses a heightened safety hazard, according to industry experts and safety officials.

Greenberg said the industry takes an aggressive approach to identifying and removing defective or worn sections of rail.

“Each railroad has its distinct operating environment and operating conditions that would be factored into this,” Greenberg said. He added that the industry was now interested in “renewed dialogue” with the FRA on the topic.

The AP requested details on rail wear standards from each of the seven major freight railroads — BNSF Railway, Union Pacific, Canadian Pacific, CSX, Canadian National, Norfolk Southern and Kansas City Southern. They either refused the request or referred questions to the railroad association, which also declined to release the standards.

Public attention to train derailments increased sharply after July 2013, when an out-of-control oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. One of the most significant changes to emerge from that and other accidents involving crude and ethanol was a mandate for companies to phase out or upgrade tens of thousands of tank cars that are prone to rupture.

Those are important changes, said James Horbay, a rail safety engineer with Transport Canada. But what causes trains to come off the tracks in the first place needs to be resolved, he said.

“If you crash an airplane, are you going to say, ‘Let’s build an airplane that’s not going to fall apart when it hits the ground?'” he asked. “Whether rail wear is something that should be looked at is a good question to ask. You’re going right to the cause now.”


Matthew Brown reported from Billings, Montana.  Michael Kunzelman reported from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 
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Dangerous energy gamble: Pipelines vs. rail

Repost from the Washington Examiner
[Editor: One significant quote among many: “In the last five years, 423 oil trains have crashed in the U.S. Since 2010, those crashes have cost about $45 million in damages. In just the first six months of 2015, 31 oil train crashes cost almost $30 million in damages…. It’s 5.5 times more likely that oil will be spilled during rail transport than from a pipeline, according to a study by the Fraser Institute, an independent Canadian think tank. The risk of deaths, injuries and spills are higher with rail and trucks since vehicles can hit other vehicles, they travel through population centers and the drivers can err. None of those factors exist for pipelines.” – RS]

Dangerous energy gamble: Pipelines vs. rail

By Kyle Feldscher, 11/2/15 12:01 AM
Fire burns at the scene of a train derailment, near Mount Carbon, W.Va., on Feb. 16. Fires burned for nearly nine hours after the train carrying more than 100 tankers of crude oil derailed in a snowstorm. (AP Photo/WCHS-TV)

Energy companies increasingly have turned to rail to ship crude oil during the fracking boom, but with train crashes becoming more frequent, they are pushing for construction of more pipelines beyond the Keystone XL.

However, that effort is being stymied by the collapse of oil prices and concerns about pipeline safety.

On Wednesday, Shell announced it would stop construction on a site in Alberta, Canada, that potentially holds 418 million barrels of bitumen oil. The company blamed the project’s expense in a time of cheap oil as well as a lack of pipeline infrastructure.

It’s one example of low prices and lack of pipelines prompting companies to reconsider drilling for oil, especially in the Canadian tar sands, where it’s more expensive to drill. Pipeline transportation is typically cheaper than rail, which costs about $30 a barrel more.

Fifty pipelines have been proposed to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission this year. They would carry the light, sweet crude from shale regions as well as the natural gas that has helped make the U.S. the world’s energy leader. ”

Because of the costs associated with [rail], it’s going to drive up the cost of oil and it’s going to be significantly higher than pipelines on a per barrel basis,” said Dan Kish, senior vice president for policy at the conservative Institute for Energy Research.

Another calculation oil companies must make is the safety of their highly flammable product.

In the last five years, 423 oil trains have crashed in the U.S. Since 2010, those crashes have cost about $45 million in damages. In just the first six months of 2015, 31 oil train crashes cost almost $30 million in damages, mostly due to a major crash in West Virginia.

It’s 5.5 times more likely that oil will be spilled during rail transport than from a pipeline, according to a study by the Fraser Institute, an independent Canadian think tank. The risk of deaths, injuries and spills are higher with rail and trucks since vehicles can hit other vehicles, they travel through population centers and the drivers can err. None of those factors exist for pipelines.

The August study also found oil and natural gas production is rising faster than existing American and Canadian pipelines can handle. Those pipelines would be even busier if production increased in the Canadian tar sands.

Keystone XL, proposed by TransCanada in 2007, would be able to transport 830,000 barrels per day from the tar sands to the Gulf Coast to be refined. Due to the viscous nature of bitumen oil, it’s much easier to transport it by pipeline than by rail, experts say.

When a train carrying oil derails, it’s often catastrophic.

In West Virginia, oil burned for days after 26 oil tanker cars derailed in February. Nineteen of those cars caught on fire and oil spilled into a nearby river. The damages from that crash totaled more than $23 million.

A train derailment in a Quebec community that killed 46 people in July 2013 prompted calls for better rail safety and led some to question whether to transport highly flammable oil at all.

The State Department estimates rail transportation of oil is responsible for 712 injuries and 94 deaths per year, while oil pipelines are responsible for three injuries and two deaths per year.

“For our society, we have to evaluate the value we place on human life and we should make that a priority,” said Diana Furtchgott-Roth, a conservative economist who is the director of the Manhattan Institute’s e21 program.

“The families of those 46 people killed in Lac-Megantic would have been happy to have less oil and having the lives of their family members back.”

Dangerous derailments led the Obama administration to introduce new regulations to make tanker cars safer. The rule, announced in May, requires improvements to braking systems, making tanker cars thicker and more fire resistant and new protocols for transporting flammable liquids.

The number of crashes steadily increased during the last five years, as more trains shipped crude and natural gas, rising from nine crashes in 2010 to 144 crashes in 2014. But as the price of oil plummeted, the amount of crude oil being drilled and shipped leveled off in 2015, according to the Energy Information Administration.

If drilling in the Canadian tar sands in Alberta were to pick up in earnest, State Department officials believe rail transport would lead to 49 more injuries and six more deaths per year. If that oil were to be moved by the Keystone XL pipeline, there would be one additional injury and no fatalities.

Environmentalists, who have been fighting the Keystone XL, point to the State Department’s finding that pipeline spills are often bigger than those from trains and trucks.

They also point to declining oil use and the collapse of prices as great excuses to leave it in the ground.

Zach Drennen, legislative associate at the League of Conservation Voters, said with oil prices as low as they are, it’s economic folly for oil companies to drill in the Canadian tar sands. Without high oil prices, companies can’t afford to build pipelines. They also can’t afford to ship by rail.

That is why green groups think oil companies could be willing to leave the oil in the earth.

“If you look right now, a lot of oil companies are just deciding that’s not where they want to put their money at,” Drennen said.

To Kish, environmentalists’ goal is to make it too expensive to drill.

“They’re going to try and fight against every damn pipeline they can,” he said, “because if they can choke off production and delay construction of pipelines, it causes disruptions.”

But Ken Green, senior director of natural resource studies at the Fraser Institute, said environmentalists’ dream of keeping oil in the ground isn’t feasible.

“The oil in the ground has a market value and everyone knows what the market value is,” he said. “It’s not hard to calculate that market value … My assumption is sooner or later, that value will be sought.”

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Rail workers score big safety win in California

Repost from People’s World
[Editor:  See earlier coverage:  News Release from California Senator Lois Wolk.  – RS]

Rail workers score big safety win in California

By: Mark Gruenberg, August 26 2015
lacmegantic
Photo: Police helicopter view of Lac-Mégantic, the day of the derailment. Forty-two people were confirmed dead, with five more missing and presumed dead. Licensed under CC BY-SA 1.0 via Commons

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (PAI) – Rail workers scored a big safety win in California on August 21 as state lawmakers gave final approval to a bill mandating two-person crews on all freight trains.

The measure, pushed by the Teamsters and their California affiliates, the Rail Division of SMART – the former United Transportation Union – and the state labor federation, now goes to Gov. Jerry Brown, D-Calif., who is expected to sign it.

Rail unions nationwide have been pushing for the two-person crews while the rail carriers have been pushing for just one, an engineer. Several months ago, the head of one carrier, the Burlington Northern, advocated crewless freights.

The unionists told lawmakers presence of a second crew member would cut down on horrific crashes such as the one that obliterated downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec, two years ago. Then, a runaway oil train crashed and exploded, killing 47 people. That train had only an engineer. There has been a string of similar U.S. accidents since, especially of oil-carrying trains. Recent oil train accidents were near Galena, Ill., Lynchburg, Va., and in West Virginia.

The proposed California statute requires trains and light engines carrying freight within the nation’s largest state – home to one of every eight Americans – to be operated with “an adequate crew size,” reported Railroad Workers United, a coalition of rank-and-file rail workers from SMART, the Teamsters and other unions.

The minimum adequate crew size, the bill says, is two. Railroads that break the law would face fines and other penalties from the state Public Utilities Commission. The commission supported the bill, SB730.

“Today’s freight trains carry extremely dangerous materials, including Bakken crude oil, ethanol, anhydrous ammonia, liquefied petroleum gas, and acids that may pose significant health and safety risks to communities and our environment in the case of an accident,” said sponsoring State Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Solano.

“With more than 5,000 miles of railroad track that crisscrosses the state through wilderness and urban areas, the potential for derailment or other accidents containing these materials is an ever present danger. I urge the governor to sign this bill into law, providing greater protection to communities located along rail lines in California, and to railroad workers.”

“California has nearly 7,000 miles of railroad track that winds through both wilderness and urban areas, making train safety a priority issue,” said California Labor Federation spokesman Steve Smith. “SB730 will help to protect railway workers, the public, and the environment from freight train derailments by ensuring trains operate with a two-person crew.

“The labor federation is proud to support this critical legislation and we’re urging the governor sign it into law.”

The rail workers union and Railroad Workers United have also pushed for two-person crews at the national level, but they’ve run into indifference, at best, in the Republican-run 114th Congress. Meanwhile, the carriers lobby federal regulators to let them have one-person crews.

Dennis Pierce, President of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the Teamsters Rail Conference, told the U.S. House Transportation Committee in June that while another safety measure – positive train control (PTC) – would also help cut down the possibility of accidents, it’s no substitute for two-person crews.

“PTC can’t replace the second crewmember,” Pierce said then. “It doesn’t provide a second set of eyes and ears trained on the road ahead or monitor the ‘left’ side of the train for defects like hot wheels, stuck brakes or shifted lading, or observe the ‘left’ side of highway-rail grade crossings for drivers who fail to stop, or separate stopped trains that block crossings to allow first responders to cross the tracks.”

SMART, the Teamsters and other rail unions and workers are pushing the Safe Freight Act (HR1763), mandating the two-person crews, introduced by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the senior Republican in the House.

SMART Transportation Division President John Previsich said, “The safest rail operation is a two-person crew operation. With several major train derailments having occurred in the last few months…our lawmakers and the general public must understand that multi-person crews are essential to ensuring the safest rail operations possible in their communities. No one would permit an airliner to fly with just one pilot, even though it can fly itself. Trains, which cannot operate themselves, should be no different.”

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