Category Archives: Public safety funding

States Step Up Scrutiny of Oil Train Shipments

Repost from GOVERNING The States and Localities

States Step Up Scrutiny of Oil Train Shipments

Some states are looking to prevent more derailments and spills, but the freight industry doesn’t want more regulation.
 By Daniel C. Vock | August 26, 2015
In 2014, several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James River near downtown Lynchburg, Va. (AP/Steve Helber)

When it comes to regulating railroads, states usually let the federal government determine policy. But mounting concerns about the safety of oil trains are making states bolder. In recent months, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington state have taken steps to strengthen oversight of the freight rail industry.

The three join several other states — mostly led by Democrats — in policing oil shipments through inspection, regulation and even lawsuits. Washington, for example, applied a 4-cent-per-barrel tax on oil moved by trains to help pay for clean-ups of potential spills. The new law also requires freight rail companies to notify local emergency personnel when oil trains would pass through their communities.

“This means that at a time when the number of oil trains running through Washington is skyrocketing, oil companies will be held accountable for playing a part in preventing and responding to spills,” said Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee when signing the measure this spring.

The flurry of state activity comes in response to a huge surge in the amount of oil transported by rail in the last few years. Oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and nearby states must travel by train to refineries and ports because there are few pipelines or refineries on the Great Plains. The type of oil found in North Dakota is more volatile — that is, more likely to catch on fire — than most varieties of crude.

Public concerns about the safety of trains carrying oil have increased with the derailments in places like Galena, Ill.; Mt. Carbon, W. Va.; Aliceville, Ala.; Lynchburg, Va.; Casselton, N.D.; and especially Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where 47 people died in 2013.

Federal regulators responded to these incidents by requiring railroads to upgrade their oil train cars, to double check safety equipment on unattended trains, and to tell states when and where oil trains would be passing through their borders. This last requirement was hard won. This summer, the Federal Railroad Administration tried to encourage states to sign nondisclosure agreements with railroads about the location of oil trains. After several states balked, the agency relented.

California, Louisiana, New Jersey, Ohio and Oklahoma have all signed nondisclosure agreements, while Idaho, Illinois, Montana, North Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin have refused to do so, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

A Maryland judge earlier this month ruled against two rail carriers, Norfolk Southern and CSX, that wanted to block the state’s environmental agency from releasing details of their oil shipments. The railroads have until early next month to decide whether to appeal.

“The ruling isn’t the first time railroads have lost their bid to keep the oil train reports secret,” wrote reporter Curtis Tate of McClatchy, one of the news organizations that requested the records, “but it is the first court decision recognizing the public’s right to see them.”

Many states want this information so that fire departments and other emergency personnel can prepare for a potential derailment. California passed a law last year imposing clean-up fees on oil shipped by rail. The railroad industry challenged the law in court, but a judge ruled this summer that the lawsuit was premature. Minnesota passed a similar law last year, and New York added rail inspectors to cope with the increase in oil train traffic. A 1990 federal law lets states pass their own rules to prepare for oil spills, as long as those rules are at least as rigorous as federal regulations.

In Pennsylvania, which handles 60 to 70 oil trains a week, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf asked a University of Delaware expert to help to improve safety of oil trains traveling through the state. The professor, Allan Zarembski, produced 27 recommendations for the state and the railroads. He called on the state to improve its inspection processes of railroad tracks, particularly for tracks leading into rail yards, side tracks and refineries that often handle oil trains. The professor also encouraged the state to coordinate emergency response work with the railroads and local communities.

Zarembski’s suggestions for the railroads focused on how they should test for faulty tracks, wheel bearings and axles. Most major derailments in recent years were caused by faulty track or broken equipment, not human error, he noted in his report.

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Railroads face big fines for failure to meet federal safety deadline

Repost from McClatchyDC

Railroads face big fines for failure to meet federal safety deadline

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Feds plan to enforce Dec. 31 deadline
  • Penalties could add up for railroads
  • Congress hasn’t provided much funding
By Curtis Tate, August 7, 2015

An Amtrak Capitol Corridor train from Sacramento, Calif., arrives at Diridon Station in San Jose on Aug. 10, 2012, alongside trains of Altamont Commuter Express. Amtrak and commuter railroads must install Positive Train Control this year under a 2008 mandate from Congress, but most will miss the deadline.

The Federal Railroad Administration plans to impose big penalties on railroads that fail to meet a year-end deadline to install a new collision avoidance system, including more than 70 percent of the nation’s commuter railroads.

Congress mandated Positive Train Control in 2008, but most of the nation’s commuter and freight railroads won’t have the system ready by Dec. 31. The technology is required for about 60,000 miles of track, including those that carry passengers or chemicals that are poisonous or toxic by inhalation.

A push in Congress to extend the deadline by three to five years has stalled, and lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return to the Capitol until next month.

Despite the commuter rail industry’s best efforts, implementing PTC nationwide by the end of this year is not possible. Michael Melaniphy, president and CEO, American Public Transportation Association

In a Friday report to lawmakers, the FRA said it planned to enforce the mandate they set in 2008. As of Jan. 1, 2016, railroads that have failed to install Positive Train Control on the required track segments face fines up to $25,000 a day for each violation.

“The potential civil penalties that FRA could assess are substantial,” the agency wrote.

Only 29 percent of the nation’s commuter railroads will meet the Dec. 31 deadline, according to the American Public Transportation Association, and the rest may need one to five more years.

“Despite the commuter rail industry’s best efforts,” said Michael Melaniphy, the association’s president and CEO, “implementing PTC nationwide by the end of this year is not possible.”

FRA has requested funding from Congress every year since 2011 to help commuter railroads install Positive Train Control, including $825 million in President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2016 budget. Lawmakers have only provided $42 million to date.

“Congress has not provided a guaranteed, reliable revenue stream for implementation on commuter railroads,” the agency wrote.

The agency has used other tools to help commuter railroads, including $650 million in grant funds, $400 million of which came from the 2009 economic stimulus.

In May, FRA issued a $967 million loan to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the nation’s largest commuter rail agency, to install Positive Train Control on the Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road.

Melaniphy said that commuter railroads have spent $950 million to date on the system, but need nearly $3.5 billion to get the job done.

The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended the system since 1969, but Congress didn’t require it until the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008.

Twenty-five people were killed in August of that year when a Metrolink commuter train smashed head-on into a freight train near Chatsworth, Calif.

Positive Train Control could have automatically stopped the train before it ran past a red signal. Metrolink is one of the few commuter railroads that will meet the Dec. 31 deadline.

$25,000 Maximum fine, per incident per day, for missing Dec. 31 deadline

In other more recent fatal crashes, trains approached curves at two or three times the appropriate speed, and the system could automatically have slowed them down.

Four people died in December 2013 when a Metro-North commuter train jumped the tracks north of New York City. The train was traveling 82 mph at a curve restricted to 30 mph.

In May, an Amtrak Northeast Corridor train barreled into a 50 mph curve north of Philadelphia at 106 mph and derailed. Eight people were killed.

Amtrak will meet the Dec. 31 deadline for installing Positive Train Control along the Northeast Corridor, which it owns. On other routes, it will depend on freight railroads, some of which will be ready, while some won’t.

According to FRA, only freight hauler BNSF and two commuter railroads, Metrolink and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, have submitted safety plans required under the 2008 federal law.

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House rejects effort to divert funding from new projects to railroad safety

Repost from NJ.com

House rejects N.J. Rep. Garrett’s effort to divert funding to railroad safety

By Jonathan D. Salant, NJ Advance Media for NJ.com The Star-Ledger, June 05, 2015 at 9:33 AM

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House on Thursday rejected an effort by Rep. Scott Garrett to use some money earmarked for new transit projects to improve safety on existing lines instead.

By a vote of 266-160, the House defeated Garrett’s attempt to amend the transportation spending bill and transfer $17 million to the Federal Railroad Administration’s safety account from the funds earmarked for new construction.

“You wouldn’t put an addition on your house if the roof was caving in,” said Garrett (R-5th Dist.). “So why are we prioritizing new transit projects before funding the safety of our existing lines?”

Garrett’s amendment was supposed by three other members of the state’s congressional delegation, Reps. Tom MacArthur (R-3rd Dist.), Leonard Lance (R-7th Dist.) and Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.). The other eight House members from New Jersey voted no.

“Just this year we have seen two oil train derailments and over a dozen Amtrak-related accidents, including the tragic crash in Philadelphia that claimed eight lives and injured dozens more,” Garrett said. “I am disappointed that the House ignored the call of our constituents by voting against this common-sense amendment.”

The transportation spending bill for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 cuts Amtrak funding by $251 million to $1.14 billion. President Obama sought $2.45 billion.

The measure passed the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee one day after the May 12 Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia that killed eight people and injured more than 200.

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