Category Archives: Rail infrastructure

Minnesota Gov. Dayton pressures railroads to pony up for safety upgrades

Repost from The Mineapolis StarTribune

Dayton pressures railroads to pony up for safety upgrades across Minnesota

By: Kyle Potter, Associated Press, March 13, 2015 – 3:45 PM

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Gov. Mark Dayton gave railroad companies and Republicans a public tongue-lashing Friday for their resistance to his tax plan to fund safety improvements across Minnesota’s railroad network.

Seven trains haul North Dakota crude across Minnesota daily — an influx that has contributed to backlogs of agricultural shipments and raised safety concerns after a string of recent explosive derailments.

With a throng of officials from towns dealing with the headaches of heavier train traffic behind him, Dayton called it “totally unacceptable” that railroads would oppose contributing more money to the state’s safety efforts. The governor and other fellow Democratic lawmakers have proposed a series of tax increases and annual fees on railroads to upgrade railroad crossings and ease congestion across Minnesota.

“That is the responsibility of the railroad,” Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said of improvements.

By taxing train cars and levying an annual fee on Minnesota’ four major freight railroads, the state would net $330 million over the next decade, mostly for improvements at railroad crossings. Dayton’s plan would also fund increased training for first responders, including a new statewide training facility.

The governor is also planning to carve out $76 million from a bonding bill this year to build underpasses or overpasses in Moorhead, Prairie Island, Coon Rapids and Willmar, where passing trains block crossings for hours every day.

Railroad companies such as BNSF Railway, the state’s largest freight railroad and a major shipper of Bakken crude, balked at the governor’s proposal. In a statement, spokeswoman Amy McBeth said the company believes Dayton’s proposed taxes violate federal law “because they single out railroads for discriminatory taxation.”

The other three major freight railroads operating in Minnesota are Canadian Pacific, Union Pacific and Canadian National.

Majority House Republicans have also signaled they’re not on board with the tax increases.

“While the governor and I agree that our railroad crossings need improvements, the funding source is still the main issue,” said Rep. Tim Kelly, the Republican chair of the House Transportation Finance committee.

Dayton criticized Republicans for not supporting his plan, but he saved his strongest words for the railroad companies.

The governor said state officials believe they’re on solid legal ground to foot railroads with a larger tax bill. And he remained defiant in the face of a possible lawsuit from railroads if his proposal goes ahead.

“We’re going to do what we know is right for Minnesota. If they want to take us to court, that certainly shows their true colors,” Dayton said.

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    NEW YORK TIMES: Dangerous Trains, Aging Rails

    Repost from The New York Times
    [Editor:  Another excellent investigative report by Marcus Stern.  New information here – another must-read for CBR opponents.  See his highly-acclaimed December report, Boom! North America’s Explosive Oil-by-Rail Problem.  – RS]

    Dangerous Trains, Aging Rails

    By Marcus Stern, March 12, 2015

    A CSX freight train ran off the rails last month in rural Mount Carbon, W.Va. One after another, exploding rail cars sent hellish fireballs hundreds of feet into the clear winter sky. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency, and the fires burned for several days.

    The Feb. 16 accident was one of a series of recent fiery derailments highlighting the danger of using freight trains to ship crude oil from wellheads in North Dakota to refineries in congested regions along America’s coastlines. The most recent was last week, when a Burlington Northern Santa Fe oil train with roughly 100 cars derailed, causing at least two cars, each with about 30,000 gallons of crude oil, to explode, burn and leak near the Mississippi River, south of Galena, Ill.

    These explosions have generally been attributed to the design of the rail cars — they’re notoriously puncture-prone — and the volatility of the oil; it tends to blow up. Less attention has been paid to questions surrounding the safety and regulation of the nation’s aging network of 140,000 miles of freight rails, which carry their explosive cargo through urban corridors, sensitive ecological zones and populous suburbs.

    Case in point: The wooden trestles that flank the Mobile and Ohio railroad bridge, built in 1898, as it traverses Alabama’s Black Warrior River between the cities of Northport and Tuscaloosa. Oil trains rumble roughly 40 feet aloft, while joggers and baby strollers pass underneath. One of the trestles runs past the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater. Yet when I visited last May, many of the trestles’ supports were rotted and some of its cross braces were dangling or missing.

    The public has only one hope of finding out if such centenarian bridges are still sturdy enough to carry these oil trains. Ask the railroads. That’s because the federal government doesn’t routinely inspect rail bridges. In fact, the government lacks any engineering standards whatsoever for rail bridges. Nor does it have an inventory of them.

    The only significant government intrusion into the railroads’ self-regulation of the nation’s 70,000 to 100,000 railroad bridges is a requirement that the companies inspect them each year. But the Federal Railroad Administration, which employed only 76 track inspectors as of last year, does not routinely review the inspection reports and allows each railroad to decide for itself whether or not to make repairs.

    The railroad that operates the Tuscaloosa bridge, Watco Companies, and the Federal Railroad Administration assured me it was safe. But shortly after my reporting was published on the websites of InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel, Watco announced that it would make $2.5 million in repairs. And the Department of Transportation’s inspector general said it would begin a review of the F.R.A.’s oversight of rail bridges.

    Even where federal engineering standards do exist, it’s unclear how much safety they provide. For instance, federal track safety standards allow 19 out of 24 crossties to be defective along any 39-foot stretch of the lowest grade of track, where the speed limit is 10 m.p.h. These crossties stabilize the rails. On the best of tracks, which have a speed limit of 80 m.p.h., the standards allow half of the crossties to be decayed or missing.

    Five oil trains have exploded in the United States in the last 16 months. Miraculously, there have been no deaths. Canada, however, hasn’t been so lucky. In July 2013, an oil train carrying North Dakota oil burst into flames in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic, about 10 miles from the Maine border, killing 47 people.

    After that accident, federal officials promised to develop sweeping new regulations to make sure nothing like it happens in the United States. In the interim, the Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring railroads to get federal permission before leaving trains unattended with their engines running, a major factor in the Lac-Mégantic explosion. And the railroads agreed to a number of voluntary steps, including keeping oil trains under 50 m.p.h.

    But more than a year and a half after Lac-Mégantic, new regulations have yet to be finalized as the railroad and oil industries argue about various proposed provisions. The emergency order didn’t end the practice of railroads’ leaving oil trains on tracks with their engines running; it simply required companies to have a written plan for doing so. And without regulations, reporting or penalties, the public has only the railroads’ word they are complying with the 50 m.p.h. speed limit.

    For trackside communities, the stakes are obviously high. New hydraulic fracturing technology has allowed oil developers to tap vast amounts of deeply buried oil in parts of North Dakota, Montana and Canada. Without significant new pipeline capacity, the only way to get the oil to refineries is by train. Rail car shipments of crude oil rose from 9,500 in 2008 to more than 400,000 last year.

    To protect communities and the environment, the Transportation Department needs to act quickly to require more resilient rail cars, improve the safety of rail infrastructure and operations, and reduce the volatility of oil at the wellhead, before it is loaded onto trains.

    Instead, the debate over regulations inches along as oil trains continue to roll through downtown Philadelphia, suburban Chicago and along the Hudson River in New York and the Schuylkill in eastern Pennsylvania, passing close to a nuclear power plant.

    Before leaving office last year, Deborah A. P. Hersman, the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, questioned whether industry representatives and regulators had a tombstone mentality when it came to oil trains. If nobody dies, she suggested, there’s no pressure to act. So far, the tombstones have all been in Canada.

    Marcus Stern has examined the hazards of shipping oil by rail for InsideClimate News, the Weather Channel and the Investigative Fund. He reports for a San Diego-based writers group, Hashtag30.
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      Dems to Obama: Use Powers to Crack Down on Oil Rail Transportation

      Repost from The PJ Tatler

      Dems to Obama: Use Powers to Crack Down on Oil Rail Transportation

      By Bridget Johnson, March 9, 2015 – 2:50 pm

      Wisconsin Democrats are urging President Obama to explore using his executive authority to take “immediate” action against “dangerous” trains transporting oil from hugely successful production areas in North Dakota.

      Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) noted that the Obama administration missed a Jan. 15 deadline to release final Department of Transportation and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration rules on oil train accidents.

      “We write to you today with deep concerns about the risk that trains carrying crude oil continue to pose to our constituents.  Oil train accidents are increasing at an alarming rate as a result of the increased oil production from the Bakken formation in North Dakota. Congress has provided additional funding to study safer tank cars, hire more track inspectors, and repair rail infrastructure. We urge your Administration to use this funding, along with its regulatory powers, to improve oil train safety as quickly as possible,” Baldwin and Kind wrote to Obama today.

      “…It is time for you to take immediate action and we request that your Administration issue final rules without further delay. We believe that recent accidents make clear the need for rules stronger than those originally proposed.”

      Baldwin and Kind said that the primary risk is crumbling rail infrastructure, including not enough Federal Railroad Administration inspections and old bridges.

      “The danger facing Wisconsin communities located near rail lanes has materialized quickly. Just a few years ago, an oil train in the state was a rare sight. Today, more than 40 oil trains a week pass through Wisconsin cities and towns, many more than 100 tank cars long,” the lawmakers wrote. “It is clear that the increase in oil moving on the rails has corresponded with an uptick in oil train derailments. In addition to the derailment in Illinois on Thursday March 5, 2015, there have been derailments in North Dakota, Virginia, Alabama, West Virginia, and a fatal explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.”

      “These catastrophes have illuminated the many areas ripe for improvement, as well as additional measures needed to be taken in order to ensure safety when transporting crude oil by train.”

      They want new regulations for the stabilization of oil to make crude “less likely to ignite,” new safety requirements for tank cars, new speed limits for oil trains, and “increased transparency” about oil shipments as “it is also important that our communities are aware of what is being shipped in their backyard.”

      Supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline have noted the need for a comprehensive energy infrastructure that involves rail and roads, though Baldwin voted against the pipeline in January.

      Baldwin sought amendments requiring that tar sands producers pay into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, and guarantees that American consumers get the Keystone oil before foreign export markets.

      “Working with Canada we can achieve true North American energy security and also help our allies,” sponsor Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) said then. “For us to continue to produce more energy and compete in the global market we need more pipelines to move crude at the lowest cost and in the safest and most environmentally friendly way. That means that pipelines like the Keystone XL are in the vital national interest of our country.”

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