Category Archives: Rail traffic

3 Wisconsin derailments: reminder of need to improve rail safety

Repost from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Wisconsin derailments are a reminder of need to improve rail safety

Editorial | Railroad safety | November 12, 2015
Train cars lie overturned outside of Alma after derailing on Saturday.
Train cars lie overturned outside of Alma after derailing on Saturday. Associated Press

The three train derailments in the last week in Wisconsin are another reminder that the industry, Congress and states have to move faster in making safety upgrades to rail cars and the tracks on which they move. Part of those improvements also should include better training for local responders to train accidents, better government oversight and more public access to industry records related to safety issues.

A rail accident near Alma on Saturday resulted in a spill of 18,000 gallons of ethanol, much of which escaped into the Mississippi River. That accident involved a class of tankers that are being phased out and replaced with tankers that have more safety features. On Sunday in Watertown, a derailment resulted in the spill of crude oil and prompted the evacuation of 35 homes. That accident involved tankers that had been retrofitted with some upgrades. A minor derailment also occurred Wednesday in Watertown, but there was no spill and the cars stayed upright.

As the Journal Sentinel noted in a Monday story, the accidents were the latest in a series of rail tanker mishaps across the United States and Canada in recent years that have moved safety issues and preparedness into the spotlight. That includes in Milwaukee, where oil-laden trains move through the heart of the city.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said Monday that “There has to be a stronger emphasis on safety — not just in urban areas but smaller communities as well. Watertown is not a large community.”

And in a news release Thursday, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said. “I have been sounding the alarm for two years on the need to put in place strong rail safety reforms. These two train derailments in Wisconsin are more evidence why Congress needs to take action on the reforms I have proposed.”

Baldwin went on to call on the House and Senate conference committee “to include the reforms I have proposed in the final transportation bill. We need to put in place rail reforms that provide safety, transparency, and better communication between the railroads and local first responders and communities.”

She’s right, as is Barrett. While the Senate adopted Baldwin’s reforms on rail safety in its version of the transportation bill, the House did not include those measures in its version. The conference committee should make sure the final bill includes the reforms.

The fact is that railroad infrastructure is wearing down across the nation at the same time that there is a rising tide of railroad traffic, shipping oil from North Dakota to markets. Yes, railroad shipping is generally safe. The Association of American Railroads reports that the train accident rate is down 79% from 1980 and 42% from 2000, and that “99.995% of tanks carrying crude arrive safely.”

And yet there is a serious risk to citizens. More crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents in 2013 than was spilled in the previous 37 years. In 2013 in Quebec, 47 people were killed and 1.5 million gallons of crude oil were spilled in a rail accident involving crude being moved from North Dakota. That train had passed through downtown Milwaukee.

The Wisconsin derailments are part of that pattern. Congress and the industry need to pick up the pace on safety.

Share...

    Wall Street Journal: Fewer Oil Trains Ply America’s Rails

    Repost from The Wall Street Journal

    Fewer Oil Trains Ply America’s Rails

    Safety concerns, low crude prices depress train traffic

    By Alison Sider, April 6, 2015 3:30 p.m. ET
    In March, oil-train traffic was down 7% from a year earlier. The slowdown comes amid safety concerns. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News

    The growth in oil-train shipments fueled by the U.S. energy boom has stalled in recent months, dampened by safety problems and low crude prices.

    The number of train cars carrying crude and other petroleum products peaked last fall, according to data from the Association of American Railroads, and began edging down. In March, oil-train traffic was down 7% on a year-over-year basis.

    Railroads have been a major beneficiary of the U.S. energy boom, as oil companies turned to trains to move crude to refineries from remote oil fields in North Dakota and other areas not served by pipelines. Rail shipments of oil have expanded from 20 million barrels in 2010 to just under 374 million barrels last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

    About 1.38 million barrels a day of oil and fuels like gasoline rode the rails in March, versus an average of 1.5 million barrels a day in the same period a year ago, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of the railroad association’s data.

    Oil-train traffic declined 1% in the fourth quarter of 2014 as crude-oil prices started to tumble toward $50 a barrel. More recently, data from the U.S. Energy Department show oil-train movements out of the prolific Bakken Shale in North Dakota have leveled off as drillers there have begun to pump less, though oil-train shipments from the Rocky Mountain region have risen.

    WSJ_Shipped-By-US_Rail_2014-15The slowdown comes as federal safety experts call for stronger tank cars. On Monday the National Transportation Safety Board recommended an aggressive five-year schedule for phasing out or upgrading older railcars used to haul crude-oil. A string of oil train accidents in recent months have resulted in spills, intense fires and community evacuations. The NTSB said railcars in use today rupture too quickly and aren’t fire-resistant enough.

    A few incidents have involved more modern tank cars—the CPC-1232 model. The NTSB also said the new railcar’s design isn’t sturdy enough. “We can’t wait a decade for safer rail cars,” said NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart Monday in a letter to federal transportation regulators.

    Opponents of a fast phaseout have said that if tougher standards are introduced too quickly it will create a railcar shortage and make some oil train operations unprofitable.

    Many refiners, including Philadelphia Energy Solutions, say they are still committed to shipping oil on trains. Chief Executive Phil Rinaldi in December said he likes that railroads don’t require long-term contractual agreements the way pipelines do. That allows his plant managers to buy crude only when it’s needed.

    With pipelines, “you have to pay for that transit whether it makes sense or not,” Mr. Rinaldi said. “With rail, that’s not the case.”

    Railroad operators have warned investors that their outlook for transporting crude is slightly weaker than it was last year, said David Vernon, a rail analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

    BNSF Railway Co., which is responsible for about 70% of U.S. oil-train traffic, operated as many as 10 trains a day last year, but is averaging nine a day now, a spokesman said.

    Share...

      Tacoma City Councilman and County Executive form Safe Energy Leadership Alliance, call for action

      Repost from The News Tribune, Tacoma WA

      Pierce County gets all risks, no rewards for surging oil train traffic

      By Ryan Mello and Dow Constantine, October 24, 2014
      Rail Delays
      An oil-tank train with crude oil from the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota travels near Staples, Minnesota, in April. MIKE CRONIN — The Associated Press file

      As this editorial page has noted, Washington has seen a stunning increase in the amount of Bakken crude oil transported on our railroads, to an estimated 2.87 billion gallons each year. Much of that highly flammable oil rolls across the central Puget Sound region, through downtown Tacoma and past Steilacoom in aging tank cars.

      The surge in train traffic has created an unprecedented risk to our people, our economy, our traffic and our environment. Our communities assume all of the risks while big oil companies get all of the rewards.

      There’s the immediate risk to public safety when flammable fuel passes through heavily populated areas like Tacoma and Seattle and past our neighborhoods, schools and parks. Since July 2013, there have been nine serious train derailments across North America – more than we experienced during the past four decades combined. An oil-train explosion last year in Quebec, Canada, killed 47 people and wiped out half a downtown area.

      There’s also the increased risk of oil spills contaminating Puget Sound and undermining the progress we’ve made in waterfront development and cleaning up the Foss Waterway. It’s a scenario we saw earlier this year when an oil train spilled more than 20,000 gallons of crude oil into the James River just outside Lynchburg, Virginia.

      We work hard to ensure that our first responders have the equipment and training they need to respond to oil-train derailments, spills and fires. But we need state and federal action to prevent these potentially life-threatening tragedies from occurring in the first place.

      That is why we brought together more than 100 other elected leaders from across the Northwest and British Columbia to form the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance. It’s a broad coalition of local leaders from urban and rural areas who share a mission to better understand the potential safety and economic impacts from oil and coal trains, and call for stronger safety standards.

      Having multiple mile-long trains – each carrying 3 million gallons of crude oil – roll through Pierce and King counties snarls our traffic and makes it more difficult for our emergency personnel to respond to calls. The proposed increase in oil traffic would also harm our local businesses, manufacturers and farmers who rely on our limited rail capacity to transport their goods to overseas markets.

      Displacing Washington state agriculture and manufactured products that create jobs to make way for crude oil would benefit only oil companies.

      Perhaps what’s most concerning is that there is the potential for all of these risks and impacts to substantially increase over the next six years if proposed facilities are built along the Pacific coast.

      The Department of Ecology estimates that the amount of crude oil that comes through our state could triple – to nearly 9 billion gallons each year – by 2020. The number of fully loaded oil trains that cross our state each week could go from 19 to more than 100 within the next few years.

      That’s why we applaud Gov. Jay Inslee for fast-tracking the state’s Marine and Rail Oil Transportation study and the Department of Ecology for hosting a public meeting Thursday in Olympia (see box). This study shines a light on the risks and costs to our communities, and makes recommendations to strengthen disclosure of hazards and emergency preparedness.

      We urge our state lawmakers to act swiftly on these recommendations, and enact provisions that maintain public safety. The costs to protect our communities and prevent delays in rail crossings should fall to the oil industry and not local governments.

      Our long-term goal is to establish the Northwest as a global exporter of clean energy. In the meantime, we will work together to ensure that oil and coal companies don’t take up our limited rail space, put our communities at risk and harm our local economy.

      Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello and King County Executive Dow Constantine are members of the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance.
      Read more here: http://www.thenewstribune.com/2014/10/24/3448437_pierce-county-gets-all-risks-no.html?sp=/99/447/&rh=1#storylink=cpy

       

      Share...

        New reports on freight backlogs – railroads accused of oil favoritism

        Repost from The Minneapolis StarTribune

        New reports on backlogs bring renewed criticism of railroads

        By: Tom Meersman and Jim Spencer, October 24, 2014
        Critics say they prove oil favoritism; railroads say numbers are misleading.
        Grain elevators seen from a passing train. With continued delays and backlogs for grain shipments, railroads have been accused of playing favorites. Photo: GLEN STUBBE , Star Tribune

        Farming groups and other businesses blasted railroads for poor service and favoritism Thursday after seeing new reports about backlogs and waiting times for rail cars.

        Rail critics say new data that the federal Surface Transportation Board has begun collecting suggests that the railroads are giving preference to oil shipments, creating long delays for other freight.

        A table from BNSF Railway Co., the region’s dominant railway for grain shipments, reported 747 loaded grain cars that had not moved in more than five days during the week of Oct. 12-18, and only six crude oil cars that had delays of that length.

        Gary Wertish, vice president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, said the numbers confirm what many farmers and grain elevators have witnessed all year: oil trains on the move constantly, and grain trains few and far between.

        “This is the source of our complaints all along,” Wertish said. “Obviously they’re playing favorites with crude oil.”

        The regulators early this month ordered the railroads to assemble and submit weekly reports about their performance, following months of complaints from grain shippers, coal suppliers and utilities, ethanol dealers, taconite processors, and Amtrak executives.

        The businesses have claimed that delays in rail service over the past year have cost them and their customers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost time, late supplies and higher prices.

        In submitting the first reports, railroads cautioned against drawing quick conclusions from the data.

        Canadian Pacific Railway’s president and chief operating officer, Keith Creel, urged regulators in a letter “to step back and consult with all the stakeholders” before continuing the process.

        The federal order “imposes a significant regulatory burden without articulating how providing this information will improve the overall rail supply chain in the United States,” Creel wrote. Canadian Pacific serves Minnesota, North Dakota and other northern states.

        Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota have followed the issue closely, and all three issued statements Thursday. Klobuchar said the railroad data are needed to understand the problems and “guide decisions” that will reduce delays.

        “More transparency in rail operations hardly seems like a tough burden to bear considering what rail shippers in Minnesota are going through,” Franken said.

        Canadian Pacific and other railroads filed the reports with the Surface Transportation Board, which regulates the industry. After months of complaints and several hearings, the Board issued an order on Oct. 8 for large railroads to report performance details each week.

        The reports cover such things as train speeds, dwell times at terminals, weekly cars on line by car type, weekly total number of loaded and empty cars that have not moved in more than 5 days, coal unit train loadings, grain cars by state and cargo, and number of days late for all outstanding grain car orders.

        Bob Zelenka, executive director of the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association, said the report is “unfortunate news” because BNSF pledged weeks ago that it would catch up with its backlogs before harvest, but has not done so.

        “It looks like it’s business as usual,” Zelenka said. “The numbers seem to indicate that for whatever reason, the railroads have an easier time moving oil on this congested system than anything else, and I wonder why.”

        A study last July estimated that transportation problems between March and May cost Minnesota corn, soybean and wheat farmers more than $100 million in increased freight rates, higher storage costs, lost sales and penalties for products not delivered on time.

        Several utilities have also had trouble with delayed and irregular coal deliveries and some have dialed back their power plants and taken other steps to conserve coal stockpiles.

        Xcel Energy’s director of fuel supply operations, Craig Romer, said Xcel’s power plants served by BNSF are far behind in the amount of coal they store on site. “Our inventories are in terrible shape,” he said, referring to Xcel’s large Sherco plant in Minnesota and four other coal-burning plants in Colorado and Texas.

        “In July, August and September, the railroad actually performed worse than it did in the polar vortex in the middle of the winter,” Romer said. The winter rail problems were related to weather, he said, and the summer disruptions were caused by BNSF track maintenance.

        Romer expects regular service to resume when rail construction projects end in a few weeks. “But there’s such a backlog of volume to deliver, it will be several months before they [BNSF] actually turn this thing around,” he said.

        BNSF officials have said repeatedly that the company does not give preference to oil shipments over other commodities, and that the railroad is moving more agricultural products than ever before in the region. In a statement late Thursday, the company said that fewer oil cars have delays because oil is moved mainly in unit trains built for speed and efficiency and headed for a single destination.

        About half of BNSF’s 27,000 rail cars are also used for 110-car unit trains, the statement said, but the other half are on trains that are broken up as they move across the country and put in rail yards where they are mixed with other cars with different cargoes and sent to various destinations.

        “With such a large number of single cars in ag service, the number of cars held [waiting] will always be higher than a commodity traveling almost exclusively in unit trains,” the company said.

        In its report, BNSF also noted that if a rail car is held “for more than 48 hours or even 120 hours, it does not necessarily mean that the car will not be delivered in a timely manner or even within the initial service plan.”

        Because the weekly reporting system is new and needs to be refined, the company said, “we caution against drawing firm conclusions based upon the absolute values reported in BNSF’s report.”

        Staff writer David Shaffer contributed to this report.
        Share...