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.