Tag Archives: Wisconsin

A matter of faith: Rail bridge conditions hidden from public view

Repost from The Wisconsin State Journal

A matter of faith: Rail bridge conditions hidden from public view

By Chris Hubbuch, December 14, 2014
BNSF Railway workers reinforced this railroad bridge south of Stoddard with cribbing last June. The bridge has been scheduled for replacement in 2015.  (Click image for 2 more photos.)

STODDARD — On the afternoon of June 6, Kevin Gobel pulled into town after work and noticed dozens of railroad workers and trucks gathered near the village’s only railroad crossing.

Perturbed at trucks parked across the tracks and blocking the road, Gobel, the village president, went looking for whoever was in charge to ask what was going on.

The answer: We’ve got a real problem at the bridge south of town.

Gobel, who is also a Vernon County supervisor, called Chad Buros, the county’s emergency management director. Together they drove about three quarters of a mile south on Highway 35 to where a swarm of crews were busy working on the BNSF Railway bridge over the mouth of Coon Creek.

As it turned out, the problem was an “incipient failure” on one span of the 112-year-old bridge, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Train traffic was halted for 12 hours as crews put timber blocking under the span and nine others “that appeared susceptible to the same mode of failure.”

But six months later, Gobel still has little information about the bridge, which carries an average of 16 million gallons of volatile crude oil each day.

“Nobody’s ever gotten an official report from BNSF” about happened in June, he said. “Local governments need to be informed of what’s going on. I haven’t seen any documents stating what the status of (those) bridges are.”

Local officials and the general public are largely in the dark about the nation’s freight railroads, which carry growing volumes of flammable crude oil, while state and federal governments have limited authority and oversight.

And when it comes to rail bridge safety, the industry is generally left to police itself.

Concerned citizens have documented cracked and crumbling rail bridges along the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River that engineers say are troubling and that prompted federal authorities to take a closer look. BNSF assures the public the bridges are safe, but the government does not have structural engineers to independently verify their claims. And unlike highway bridges, inspection reports are secret, unavailable to the public and local officials.

There isn’t even an inventory of bridges.

“What makes me nervous is the responsibility of safety for railroad bridges rests with the owner of the track. You’d like to think they use good faith and safety and upkeep of the bridges … but it only takes some poor owners that don’t take it as seriously,” said Pat Salvi, a Chicago attorney who handles rail accidents. “The consequences are so potentially dramatic.”

BNSF says its bridges are inspected at least once a year — some twice or more — by trained bridge inspectors as well as structural engineers, consultants and contractors. Canadian Pacific, which carries far less oil, says it also has a rigorous inspection program. Both maintain inventories.

But neither the reports nor the inventories are available to the public.

Railroad bridge failures are rare, said Frank Douma, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the Center for Transportation Studies.

Yet he acknowledges the stakes are higher when trains are hauling hazardous materials: “The difference between an oil train and a grain train derailing is what happens when it derails.”

Little oversight, little access

The Federal Railroad Administration is tasked with oversight and enforcement of rail safety.

In a 2007 report, the federal Government Accountability Office outlined how little oversight the agency exercises over rail bridges, more than half of which were built before 1920.

The GAO recommended, among other things, that the FRA devise “a systematic, consistent, risk-based methodology for selecting railroads for its bridge safety surveys.”

In addition, a joint FRA-industry committee recommended the agency create and maintain a detailed bridge inventory. That never happened.

Since the release of that report, the agency has created a bridge inspection program, which spokesman Mike England said entails audits of the railroads’ inspection programs as well as spot checks by FRA inspectors.

But there are just six inspectors for the nation’s estimated 76,000 rail bridges; only two are engineers.

“The railroad has the oversight of the bridge. The FRA has oversight of the railroad,” said Greg Baer, statewide railroad structure and track engineer for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

According to records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, in the four years since the bridge inspection program was adopted, the FRA has looked at just 14 Canadian Pacific bridges in eastern Wisconsin, and none in Minnesota. It has yet to conduct a regular inspection of a BNSF bridge on more than 1,800 miles of track in either state.

The FRA has yet to produce any documents in response to a September request for audit records. And while the FRA has access to the railroads’ structural inspection reports, those documents are hidden from public view.

England said the primary objective of FRA bridge inspections is to verify the bridge’s physical appearance matches what’s in the railroad’s report — to “make sure they’re not fudging anything” — but that inspections are thorough.

But inspection reports obtained by the La Crosse Tribune offer little detail.

An FRA inspector’s July 30 report of a Canadian Pacific bridge in Milwaukee, reads in full:

“Observation of Bridge 84.99 and review of the latest bridge inspection report. This bridge includes a TRT swing span over the Menominee River. This bridge has 3 spans, TRT and beams, concrete substructure, open deck, double track, and is 293’ long. Bridge conditions observed generally correspond with conditions reported on bridge inspection report dated 6/18/2014.”

“It’s a detailed inspection,” England said. “They’re not going to put anything in the report unless they find something wrong.”

The reports show that inspector looked at 13 bridges in a single day along nearly 45 miles of track in two counties.

By comparison, a recent DOT inspection report on a 262.4-foot viaduct on Copeland Avenue in La Crosse describes in detail minor cracks and other features. A routine inspection report on La Crosse’s Cass Street bridge is 86 pages.

Douma notes that unlike highways and airports, which are built and maintained by government, railroads are and always have been private enterprises. They came into existence at a time when the federal government was much smaller, and at least as concerned about keeping the union together as moving people across the continent.

Prior to the 1980s, railroads were subject to strict economic regulation, but the rails have always been on private land and largely out of government oversight.

Earlier this year, the state of California launched its own rail bridge inspection program in response to increasing oil train traffic and what one report labeled “the dearth of information and lack of regulatory oversight regarding the structural integrity of California’s rail bridges.”

The FRA says it is the only such state-run program in the nation.

The PUC would not make officials available for an interview, but an agency spokesman said by email they are in the process of hiring two bridge inspectors and will implement the new program “as soon as possible.”

“I don’t mean to criticize the railroads’ programs, but for the public to have the confidence that bridges are in good shape, our role is to offer oversight,” PUC Rail Safety Deputy Director Paul King told the Sacramento Bee. “Given the heightened risk of one of these crude oil trains derailing and given the projections of significant increase in tonnage across these bridges, we need to fulfill this role.”

The FRA does have the authority to order a bridge closed, as it did in 1996, 1999 and most recently 2006. In each case, orders were issued only after the owners of the bridges ignored repeated warnings to repair serious defects.

The typical maximum civil penalty for violations is $25,000, though in cases of “grossly negligent violation or where a pattern of repeated violations has caused death or injury or an imminent hazard of death or injury” fines can reach $105,000.

“That’s not really much of a hammer,” Salvi said.

According to FRA records, BNSF settled 418 track safety violations in 2012, the most violations per mile of any of the seven Class 1 railroads. Those track violations resulted in fines of $865,000, of which BNSF paid $569,725.

Last year, BNSF reported a pre-tax profit of almost $6.7 billion on revenues in excess of $21.5 billion.

Bridge conditions spark concern

In June, when the swarm of workers showed up to fix the bridge in Stoddard, Guy Wolf started to get worried about the state of the bridges near his home in Mohawk Valley.

Wolf, a retired university retention specialist and avid angler, used a kayak to navigate up the mouth of Coon Creek to get a closer look at the emergency repairs.

“What really concerned me — they had things circled. Cracks,” he said. “You could begin to see that parts of the bridge were lower (than other parts). All this lumber stacked up under the bridge.”

He started looking at other bridges and was startled at their appearance. Over the summer, Wolf and La Crescent wildlife photographer Alan Stankevitz, who runs a blog where he tracks rail safety issues, began photographing rail bridges along the Mississippi River backwaters between La Crosse and Prairie du Chien.

They documented cracked supports, exposed reinforcing steel rods, and chunks of missing concrete.

But looks can be deceiving, according to the railroad, which assures all the bridges are sound.

“Railroad bridges are typically not pretty; but they are functional and safe,” BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said. “The visual appearance of these structures is not indicative of their structural integrity.”

While it is impossible to determine a bridge’s structural integrity from photographs, four engineers who looked at the photos agreed there are signs of serious deterioration.

Al Ghorbanpoor, a professor and director of the Structural Engineering Laboratory at UW-Milwaukee, said while a thorough assessment would be required, “the photographs give the impression that the condition of these bridge structures should be of concern. There is clear evidence of excessive deterioration that could have negative impact on the structural integrity of these bridges.”

Most agreed the Coon Creek bridge was the most troubling, though John Zachar, a professor of architectural engineering Milwaukee School of Engineering, expressed concerns about the pictures of a bridge in Genoa where concrete breakage has left exposed rebar at the base of piers and on one of the spans.

“That is a significant structural deficiency,” Zachar said. “I’d say there’s no question about it. This is something we ought to look at.”

But John Bennett, a former vice president of planning and systems for Amtrak and policy adviser, said rail bridges can be sound even after losing some of their structural integrity.

“Many of these bridges were built 50 or 100 years ago, (when) standards weren’t as well known,” Bennett said. “Many of these bridges have been overbuilt in terms of strength.”

Wolf and other rail safety activists presented the photos to Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who wrote to the FRA in September urging a quick inspection of the bridges.

The FRA says it sent inspectors to look at a dozen Mississippi River bridges and a letter to Baldwin said neither BNSF nor its own inspections revealed any conditions “that inhibit the ability of these bridges to safely carry rail traffic.”

But the agency did not release those reports in response to a FOIA request and has declined to provide access to them.

According to the letter, the four bridges pictured were built between 1911 and 1923 and show deterioration — cracking and spalling concrete, exposed rebar — typical for rail bridges of that age.

The letter also notes that BNSF is monitoring the Coon Creek bridge, and the temporary blocking, through twice weekly inspection. The FRA went on to say BNSF is inspecting its bridges twice as often as required by the agency and accurately documenting conditions.

Reinvesting revenues

Railroads have enjoyed substantial growth in revenue and profit in recent years as the U.S. economy has recovered.

BNSF says it is sinking record amounts of that money back into its infrastructure: the railroad spent $5.5 billion last year on capital improvements, and has announced plans to spend $6 billion this year — about half of that on maintaining its physical infrastructure, such as tracks and bridges.

Indeed, workers this fall cut an access road to the Coon Creek bridge in preparation for its replacement, which BNSF said was scheduled for 2015 even before the most recent problems were detected.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the railroad industry a C+ in its most recent report card on U.S. infrastructure, which Bennett said is largely due to the investments the big four railroads are making in their infrastructure.

In fact, Bennett said, railroad infrastructure is generally better funded than highways.

“One of the good things about the railroad, they have a business model that actually works — they’re able to extract enough profits from operations to invest in infrastructure,” he said. “As opposed to highways. … The highway bridge systems are much more perilous in terms of getting funding.”

“It’s certainly in our best interest to prevent accidents and keep our infrastructure sound,” McBeth said. “That’s why you see record investments in infrastructure.”

Wall Street Journal: Dangers Aside, Railways Reshape Crude Market

Repost from The Wall Street Journal [Editor: A good summary of recent history and market players in the emergence and future of crude by rail.  Interesting quote: “…if all the railcars loaded with crude on one day were hitched to a single locomotive, the resulting train would be about 29 miles long.” – RS]

Dangers Aside, Railways Reshape Crude Market

Shipping Crude by Rail Expands as New Pipelines Hit Headwinds and Train Companies Reap Revenue
By Russell Gold and Chester Dawson, Sept. 21, 2014
Railroad tank cars are filled with oil at the Musket Corp. Windsor Crude Terminal in Windsor, Colo. | Bloomberg

In May 2008, a locomotive with a grizzly bear painted on its side pulled into a railroad siding next to an abandoned grain elevator in the ghost town of Dore, N.D. The engine, property of the Yellowstone Valley Railroad, hitched up a couple of tank cars of crude from nearby oil wells and set off on a thousand-mile journey to Oklahoma.

Dore would never be the same—and neither would the U.S. energy industry. Until then, most oil pumped in North America moved around the continent in pipelines. Suddenly, and just as the oil industry began a period of unprecedented growth, there was an alternative: “crude by rail.”

Today, 1.6 million barrels of oil a day are riding the rails, close to 20% of the total pumped in the U.S., according to the Energy Information Administration, chugging across plains and over bridges, rumbling through cities and towns on their way to refineries on the coasts and along the Gulf of Mexico. If all the railcars loaded with crude on one day were hitched to a single locomotive, the resulting train would be about 29 miles long.

Initially conceived of as a stopgap measure until pipelines could be constructed, and plagued by high-profile safety problems, crude by rail has nevertheless become a permanent part of the nation’s energy infrastructure, experts say. Even pipeline companies have jumped into the rail business, building terminals to load and unload crude.

Behind the new industry are powerful economics. While it costs a bit more to ship petroleum on trains than through pipelines, railroads have the flexibility to deliver it to wherever it will fetch the highest prices. And capital expenses are far lower. Major railroads’ revenue for hauling crude has jumped from $25.8 million in 2008 to $2.15 billion in 2013, according to federal data.

The oil and rail industries have developed “a mutual dependence likely to continue for a long time,” said Ed Morse, global head of commodities research for Citigroup.

It is a similar story in Canada: the amount of crude moving by rail has quadrupled since 2012, and is forecast to more than triple between now and 2016.

The swift growth of crude by rail has been embraced by drillers in new oil fields in North Dakota, Texas and Colorado eager to move their product to the highest bidders. It was also welcomed, at least initially, by railroads looking for new customers after the recession sent traditional shipments tumbling.

But it has frightened communities across the country where first responders fear the fireballs that have erupted in the past year after some oil-train derailments. Federal regulators recently proposed new rules to require sturdier cars to carry oil, lower speed limits on some shipments and testing of the volatility of the crude transported by train.

Pipelines still carry most of the 8.5 million barrels of oil pumped every day in the U.S. And safety experts say pipelines have the best record of transporting crude without accident, despite a few big leaks like the one that left Mayflower, Ark., awash in heavy crude last year.

But pipelines, especially new pipelines, face a lot of problems these days. They draw protests from communities worried about spills and unhappy with the use of eminent domain to take rights of way from local landowners.

Activists opposed to the use of fossil fuels have focused on blocking pipelines in hopes of keeping oil in the ground. The Keystone XL pipeline, which requires federal approval because it crosses the U.S. border from Canada, has been seeking a permit since 2008 amid fierce political fighting, pro and con.

Railroads, by contrast, already own 140,000 miles of track in the U.S., according federal statistics, in a system that can send cargo from coast to coast, north to Canada and south to Mexico. By law, railroads don’t have the ability to turn down cargo, even if they want to, so all oil shippers had to do is to figure out how to get oil on and off the trains.

A big loading terminal might cost about $50 million—equal to the estimated cost of building just one mile of the Keystone pipeline.

With a terminal, “You can build it and have it under contract in 12 months and pay it off in five years,” said Steve Kean, president and chief operating officer of Kinder Morgan Inc., the operator of 80,000 miles of pipeline in North America and a growing network of rail terminals. The company has spent $290 million to date building up a crude-by-rail business.

To justify the massive investments needed for pipelines, their builders usually require drillers and refiners to sign long-term shipping contracts before they start laying pipe. That has been a problem for new oil fields without a track record, and for the mostly independent energy companies that developed those fields using hydraulic fracturing, said Adam Sieminski, who runs the federal government’s Energy Information Administration. Railroads don’t require such lengthy contracts.

The new way of moving crude was born out of frustration and need. In 2006, North Dakota faced what it called, in a report, a “crude oil transportation crisis.” Oil production was rising, but the few pipelines that served the state were full.

Enter Musket Corp., a privately held Houston company owned by the family that also owns Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores. Musket bought inexpensive diesel from refineries along the Gulf Coast and moved it by rail to locations close to the Love’s service stations, developing and patenting a portable pump for loading and unloading the fuel.

In 2007, Musket tried using its pump to load a couple of tank cars with crude oil rather than diesel. When that worked, the company sent employees driving around North Dakota with binoculars to find an unused railroad siding to lease. They spotted Dore.

“Pretty soon, we knew it was going to be big,” said J.P. Fjeld-Hansen, a managing director of Musket. Trains could deliver Bakken crude to wherever it could fetch the highest prices, including Philadelphia, California, Louisiana or the giant Houston petrochemical complex.

The first loads from Dore were carried to Oklahoma, home to a giant oil-trading hub, by BNSF Railway Co., now owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.  It picked up the cars from Yellowstone Valley Railroad, a so-called short line railroad that now operates on just one mile of track — specializing in hauling freight from shippers’ yards to connections with the bigger railroads. The company that owns the railroad, Watco Companies Inc., didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“Crude is a growing part of our business,” said Michael Treviño, a spokesman for BNSF, which now moves more oil than any other major North American railroad and spent $200 million last year on crude-by-rail projects.

The Dore project caught the attention of EOG Resources Inc., a big oil and gas company based in Houston. By the end of 2009, EOG had built an industrial-scale rail-loading terminal in Stanley, N.D., including a 1.3-mile loop of track where trains could be loaded with 60,000 barrels a day.

“We brought the project to fruition in an eight-month period,” Mark Papa, the former chairman of the company, said in a conference call with analysts in 2010. The company declined to comment.

The terminal cost $50 million, according to Wilson & Company Inc., an engineering firm involved in the project. Its chairman, Kenny Hancock, said his firm needed to work out kinks with this first-of-its-kind facility.

One problem was that when tank cars were loaded, hydrocarbon fumes would leak out and, since they were heavier than air, settle in the long open-ended loading shed. “The first seal we tried didn’t work and our explosive limit alarms went off,” he said. New seals and ventilation fans eventually solved the problem, the company said.

The relative ease and low cost of building loading and unloading terminals soon attracted a range of companies. Great Western Railroad, a Saskatchewan short line mostly owned by the province’s farmers in a cooperative agreement, hauled more carloads of crude last year than carloads of grain.

In 2011, Dakota Plains Holding Co. built a loading terminal, acquired a Utah tanning salon business that traded on the OTC Bulletin Board, renamed the business and issued shares to raise funds to expand.

By the end of 2013, there were 13 large rail loading facilities in the state, according to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority. The largest, the Bakken Oil Express outside Dickinson, N.D., can handle 200,000 barrels a day.

There was also a surge in facilities for unloading oil and transferring it to refineries; such terminals are operating or planned in nearly two dozen states and Canadian provinces. Mile-long trains of oil tankers became familiar sights in cities across the country.

The crude-by-rail phenomenon has spread beyond the Bakken Shale in North Dakota and Montana to the Permian Basin in Texas, the Niobrara in Colorado and to western Canada. In July, Global Partners said they planned to build a rail terminal in the heart of the Gulf Coast petrochemical complex that can handle more than 100,000 barrels a day of crude, including Canadian oil sands.

“It is not a layup to build a pipeline to the Gulf Coast,” said Mark Romaine, chief operating officer of Global Partners, a Waltham, Mass., fuel logistics firm. “Look at the Keystone XL.”

But a year ago, those strings of black train cars took on an ominous look after an unattended oil train in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, derailed and exploded, killing 47 people. Several other derailments were followed by fireballs as Bakken crude burst into towering flames.

Those accidents have given railroads second thoughts about hauling crude, said consultant Anthony Hatch. While companies don’t break out the data, hauling crude is believed to be very profitable for railroads, so “they were excited” at first, he said. But now that business, which makes up only about 3.5% of rail shipments, according to federal data, has attracted unwelcome attention in communities that previously ignored the freight trains rumbling through town. And even some of the largest North American railroads are concerned they might not survive the costs of cleanup and lawsuits if a train exploded in a crowded city.

Regulators are imposing new rules that industry executives fear could slow the entire rail system, cut capacity and cause congestion. Federal regulators recently concluded that Bakken oil contains a high level of combustible compounds, known as light ends, as The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s proposed new rules on crude by rail will require companies to test crude before putting it into appropriately sturdy tank cars, among other measures being imposed on the little-regulated industry.

Harold Hamm, chairman and chief executive of Continental Resources Inc., a leading exploration and production company in the Bakken, said that the problem isn’t with the oil, but with railroad safety. “There would not be any problems with oil movements in America as long as Mr. Buffett keeps the trains on the track,” said Mr. Hamm, referring to Warren Buffett, the chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway, the owner of BNSF.

Mr. Treviño, the BNSF spokesman, said that “the facts are that 99.997% of rail industry shipments of hazardous materials reach their destination without a release caused by a train accident,” and that BNSF had a lower percentage of derailments last year than anytime in company history.

Two BNSF trains were involved in a derailment near Casselton, N.D., in 2013 that released more than 400,000 gallons of crude and set off a several-story tall explosion, leading to the evacuation of 1,400 people from Casselton.

The Association of American Railroads said it has increased inspections, decreased speeds and is using more technology to prevent derailments.

But Mr. Hamm said he thinks the situation will be short lived. “Rail is still a temporary thing,” he said. “If rail hadn’t been available, there would have been pipelines built.”

And some are in the works.  Enbridge Inc. recently received approval form North Dakota regulators to start construction on a $2.6 billion, 225,000-barrel a day and 600-mile project called the Sandpiper pipeline, which would move oil from Tioga, N.D., to Wisconsin.

In Dore, Musket says it isn’t worried about business drying up with the addition of pipelines. The company’s terminal in the town can now handle 60,000 barrels a day and employs 50 people; the company has built another rail-loading facility in Dickinson, a two-hour drive to the south, and one in the Niobrara Shale in Colorado.

“I don’t think it’s either/or,” Mr. Fjeld-Hansen said. “I think rail and pipe will coexist for a long time.”

—Betsy Morris and David George-Cosh contributed to this article.

New rules about shipping oil by rail – compliance issues

[Editor: All across the U.S., media reports are focusing on how the States are responding to the new Federal rules on disclosure of crude by rail shipments.   Some states are making these disclosures available to the public, and some are withholding the reports.  Here is a sampling of the articles Mr. Google found today….  – RS]

Oil trains moving frequently through Wisconsin

The Sheboygan Press-52 minutes ago
More than three dozen trains carrying volatile crude oil move through Wisconsin each week from the Northern Plains, disclosures from railroads show.

Tracking crude oil: New rules about shipping oil by rail in Iowa

kwwl.com-1 hour ago
It’s explosive, and millions of gallons move through eastern Iowa each month. This week, KWWL learned where crude oil is shipped in large amounts as …

Louisiana refuses to disclose oil train records

The Times-Picayune-by Bob Warren-21 hours ago
6, 2013, file photo, a BNSF Railway train hauls crude oil near Wolf Point, Mont. … Louisiana officials are refusing to disclose the details of crude oil shipments …

Nebraska refuses to disclose oil train records

Lincoln Journal Star-2 hours ago

BNSF reports drop in Washington oil train shipments

The Columbian-22 hours ago
BNSF Railway previously reported as many as 19 trains of Bakken crude oil traversed the state during the week of May 29 to June 4. They updated those …

Oil train records show what Oregon tried to hide

Yakima Herald-Republic-9 hours ago
The records, which show how much crude oil from the Northern Rockies was carried by train car through Oregon, were released Thursday. Media outlets …

More Trains equal More Train Crashes with cars and trucks; trend reversal

Repost from The Milwaukee Wisconsin Sentinel Journal
[Editor: Note that references here to Wisconsin’s “frac sand mining” are NOT describing tar-sands mining of bitumen.  Rather, there is a boom in Wisconsin for “SILICA SAND, which is mined and exported to states like North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas where it is used in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The tough, crystallized sand, unique to the Wisconsin-Minnesota area, is hard enough to break through rock and release natural gas.”  Source: The Cap Times.  – RS]

More trains lead to more crashes with vehicles in Wisconsin

Recent booms in sand mining in Wisconsin and crude oil from shale in North Dakota.

By Lydia Mulvany of the Journal Sentinel  |  April 26, 2014 3:49 p.m.

Laurel Norlander grew up down the road from train tracks that trace the edge of Lake Wissota outside Chippewa Falls.

She’d been crossing those tracks her whole life, but that didn’t help the night of Jan. 3, 2013. The 60-year-old was returning to town after a visit to her parents’ home. She stopped at the stop sign before the tracks, but didn’t see or hear an oncoming Canadian National train. The train conductor told investigators he blew the whistle, but Norlander says she’s sure the train never did. They collided, leaving her with a totaled car and a bruised leg.

“It was very bizarre, and I’m grateful to be alive,” she said. “But at an uncontrolled intersection, it would sure be nice if they would blow the horn.”

Norlander’s crash was the first of 60 crashes between trains and highway users in 2013, the highest number Wisconsin has seen in five years. Injuries are at a six-year high, at 21. In addition, there were three deaths.

One possible factor in the rise is increased train traffic in the state, a result of recent booms in sand mining in Wisconsin and crude oil from shale in North Dakota.

Products of the state’s sand mining operations, which have grown from a handful in 2010 to well over 100, are used in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process for extracting oil and natural gas. Crude oil, some of which passes by rail through Wisconsin, has similarly exploded. According to the American Association of Railroads, railroads nationwide transported 9,500 carloads of crude in 2008. In 2012, that number jumped to 234,000, and the most recent estimates for 2013 are around 400,000.

Trains on the tracks where Norlander was struck used to be few and far between, Norlander said, but a new sand plant in town has changed that.

“There’s been quite an increase in train traffic,” she said.

Jeff Plale, the state’s commissioner of railroads, said it seemed as if trains and cars were crashing every time he turns around.

“We have more trains going through the state, they’re heavier, they’re longer. Stop playing with the trains,” he said. “I’m just tired of it, because these (accidents) are so preventable.”

Plale said that besides increased train traffic, some railroads that weren’t in use have been revived, so people aren’t accustomed to seeing the trains.

“All of a sudden you’ve gone from having no trains or very few, and now you have a whole bunch of them. It’s a matter of being cognizant and safe,” he said.

Much of the sand mining activity in Wisconsin has occurred in the region governed by the Western Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, which includes Chippewa County. Train-highway incidents there are at their highest in more than a decade.

According to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis, there were 11 crashes with trains at highway crossings in Barron, Chippewa, Clark, Dunn, Eau Claire and St. Croix counties. It hasn’t been that high since 2001, a year when the state saw more than 100 rail-highway incidents.

Rail accidents at road crossings have been steadily declining since a peak in the late 1970s, when the annual totals for Wisconsin were 450 and higher. In contrast, there were just 33 crashes in 2010.

Federal Rail Administration spokesman Michael England said reasons for the decline are stepped-up enforcement, advances in technology and a large increase in crossings with lights and gates.

There are more than 4,000 rail-highway crossings in Wisconsin. Of these, about 800 have both flashing lights and gates, a thousand have flashing lights, and 2,200 have only crossbucks. The average cost of installing gates is around $200,000, and the Office of the Commissioner of Railroads spends $4.4 million a year upgrading crossings.

Whatever the signage, crossings can be deadly. In many of the 2013 accidents, drivers went around gates or failed to stop. But cars also got stuck on the rails, in snow, or slid on ice into a train’s path.

Clarence Drewa, 87, a Palmyra resident, was driving Nov. 7 on Benson Ave. in Vernon when his tire got stuck in the railroad tracks. When he saw a train coming, he exited the car, his daughter, Sandra Stefanski, said. But the train struck the car and sent it hurling toward him. Among other injuries, his ribs were marred by fractures, and he died a week and a half later, she said.

The most tragic part was when two of his grandchildren, ages 5 and 6, were looking for their grandpa to come home.

“He was in all of our lives daily, and he was a very healthy man,” his daughter said.