Category Archives: Union Pacific Railroad

Capitol Corridor passenger trains outfitted with new safety braking system

Repost from the Sacramento Bee
[Editor: note that Capitol Corridor is upgraded, but other Union Pacific and AMTRAK systems are not yet complete.  The railroads continue to drag their heels.  – R.S.]

Capitol Corridor passenger trains just got the biggest safety upgrade in a century

By Tony Bizjak, December 26, 2018 03:00 AM
Apologies for the ads that precede this video…

Two years ago an Amtrak Capitol Corridor passenger train outside Sacramento jolted so violently that passengers thought it would derail.

The engineer had mistakenly sped at double the limit through a track crossover. Coffees, laptops and some bodies went flying. Two people were slightly injured. Ultimately, two train operators were disciplined. But the human-error incident left several passengers saying they wondered if rail officials were really focused on safety.

Now, corridor train officials say, an incident like that is unlikely to happen again.

As of this fall, all trains on the 170-mile Capitol Corridor system have been equipped with a computer system that will take control of the train from the engineer if the engineer fails to heed speed or other warnings.

The system, called Positive Train Control (PTC), gives the engineer an auditory countdown to act if danger looms. If the train is headed toward a curve at too high a speed, for instance, the system will warn the engineer. If the engineer fails to take remedial action in a timely fashion, the computer takes control and stops the train.

Amtrak, which operates the Capitol Corridor line, is one of 41 railroads that have been mandated by the federal government to install the system.

Federal Railroad Administration chief Ronald Batory, speaking recently to Congress, called PTC “the most fundamental change in rail safety technology since the introduction of Automatic Train Control in the 1920s.”

Davis City Councilman Lucas Frerichs, the Capitol Corridor board chairman, said the new system is a major step and statement about the importance of passenger safety.

“PTC is the gold standard of rail safety, and its implementation on the Capitol Corridor fleet that carried a record 1.7 million passengers last year is a huge milestone,” Frerichs said.

The implementation period since October, however, has been suffering from multiple technology glitches. Numerous trains have been delayed because of technical difficulties with the PTC system, Capitol Corridor chief David Kutrosky said.

He said crews have typically been able to correct the problems in a few minutes in most cases, and the number of issues is on the decline.

“With any new technology, it just doesn’t work to full specifications on day one,” Kutrosky said. “You need to work through the systems. We knew there would be some delays. The delays are trending downward.”

Kutrosky said the PTC system has not yet had to step in to take over control of a train.

Capitol Corridor is among the first rail lines in the country to have its system fully up and running.

The federal government first mandated the PTC system for major railroads after a Metrolink passenger train engineer became distracted by text messages on his cell phone, causing the train to go through a red signal and crash head-on into a freight train. The 2008 crash killed 25.

Railroads have been slow to install the system, complaining it is complicated and costly. The federal government has repeatedly extended the deadline for railroads to have the system fully up, tested and running. The initial deadline of 2015 was first extended to the end of 2018, but that deadline, too, was extended for some railroads to 2020.

Union Pacific, the largest rail track owner and freight shipper in Northern California, has informed the federal government it will not be finished getting the system tested and fully operational by the end of this month, and is requesting an extension to 2020.

Although the Capitol Corridor train system has finished its PTC installation and testing, Amtrak overall will not meet the Dec. 31 deadline and has requested an extension to 2020.

Critics, including some members of Congress, say the railroads are dragging their heels and the federal government is complicit in letting them get away with it.

Experts say several recent fatal crashes likely would have been avoided if PTC had been fully in place and operating nationally.

In December of 2017, three people were killed and dozens injured when an Amtrak train in Washington sped at twice the speed limit through a turn and derailed onto Interstate 5. In February, an Amtrak train ran head-on into a freight train in South Carolina, killing two and injuring 100.

The system has limitations, rail officials say. While the computers know what speeds to go, as well as whether the train is on the correct track, the system cannot detect whether a person, car or other object is on the tracks ahead.

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    Senators question railroads on oil train braking systems

    Repost from Transportation Today
    [Editor: I challenge Senators Feinstein and Harris (and Attorney General Becerra) to follow the lead of Senators Wyden and Merkley.  These “positive train control” braking systems, or “electronically controlled pneumatic” (ECP) braking systems – were supposed to be in place nationwide long ago, but every time a deadline approached, the railroad lobby won a delay.  Now they have Trump on their side.  Some background in this 2015 CNN report, “Amtrak derailment: Could technology have prevented crash?”.  – R.S.]

    Lawmakers launch railway safety standards inquiry

    BY DOUGLAS CLARK, OCTOBER 19, 2018

    Union Pacific

    Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) are seeking answers from two railway company’s regarding plans to ensure trains carrying hazardous material have updated braking systems.

    To do so, the Oregon senators recently forwarded correspondence to Union Pacific and BNSF in the wake of the Trump Administration’s announcement to roll back an Obama-era rule requiring the installation of electronically controlled pneumatic braking systems by 2021. The legislators noted that the guideline was instituted after multiple oil train crashes across the United States, including one in the Columbia River Gorge.

    “Too often our constituents in the Pacific Northwest have seen trains carrying crude oil crashing within and around their communities,” Wyden and Merkley wrote. “We have seen these trains crash near school buildings, small businesses, and homes, causing extensive damage to communities and putting our environment at risk, including sources of drinking water as well as river habitats that house endangered fish species.”

    In their letter, the lawmakers inquired about how many of the railway companies’ trains carrying crude oil in Oregon and Washington have ECP brakes installed; the percentage of trains carrying crude oil through Oregon and Washington have ECP brakes; and whether the rule rollback impact purchasing of new railcars with ECP brakes.

    The legislators maintain their constituents should be afforded security from potential railway transport dangers.

    “Our constituents, many of whom live, work or go to school in the vicinity of rail lines that carry hazardous materials, need to know that their safety is being protected,” the legislators wrote.

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      Crude oil tank cars derail in Texarkana – no spill or explosion

      Repost from KSLA 12 News

      Crews work to clear Texarkana train derailment

      By Brett Kaprelian, Digital Content Producer, April 22nd 2018, 4:35 pm PDT

      KSLA News 12 Shreveport, Louisiana News Weather & Sports

      TEXARKANA, TX (KSLA) -Crews are working to clear a train derailment in Texarkana, Texas, Sunday afternoon.

      It happened around 11:30 a.m. at the Union Pacific Texarkana Rail Yard.

      A Union Pacific spokesman said the southbound train that derailed had 12 tank cars carrying crude oil from Canada down to Beaumont, Texas.

      Nine cars are on their side and three are standing upright.

      No injuries or leaks have been reported.

      Crews are on site trying to clear the trains from the roadway.

      According to the Union Pacific spokesman, the train tracks have been damaged by the derailment. Crews will work through the night to clear the scene and fix the tracks.

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        LA TIMES: Will San Luis Obispo County follow the lead of Benicia and ban oil trains, or capitulate to Phillips 66?

        Repost from the Los Angeles Times
        [Editor: This is an incredibly entertaining as well as informative article. Recommended reading!  – RS]

        Will San Luis Obispo County follow the lead of Benicia and ban oil trains, or capitulate to Phillips 66?

        By Robin Abcarian, September 24, 2016 2:25PM

        latimes_abcarianThere were a couple of light moments Thursday at the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission’s interminable, inconclusive public hearing about whether it should allow the fossil fuel giant Phillips 66 to send crude-oil trains across California to its Santa Maria Refinery.

        A local named Gary, one of only four citizens to express support for the project, took the microphone and announced, “Anybody opposed to something because it’s dangerous is my definition of a coward.” As he walked away, the audience, packed with oil train opponents, howled.

        “My name is Sherry Lewis,” said the next speaker, “and I come from Cowards Anonymous.”

        After several hearings, reams of public comment and a few concessions by Phillips 66, commissioners were finally supposed to put the matter to a vote this week.

        Would they approve the construction of a new rail spur and oil transfer operation that would give Phillips the ability to send three new crude-oil trains through California each week, or would they defy their staff, who recommended denial because the project would have significant negative effects, particularly to air quality and sensitive habitats?

        Would they disregard their pleading constituents, and the letters that have poured in from cities, teachers and boards of supervisors from San Francisco to Los Angeles asking commissioners to deny the project because those mile-long oil trains bring increased risk to every California community along Union Pacific tracks?

        (Not to belabor the point, but if you live, work or study within half a mile of those tracks, you’re in what is known, for emergency planning purposes, as the “blast zone.” Even the mayor of nearby Paso Robles, who has offered lukewarm support for the project, once referred to them as “bomb trains.”)

        Last spring, three of five commissioners indicated they were leaning toward approval. But one of them, a local realtor named Jim Irving, now appears to be on the fence.

        The regulatory issues around oil trains are complex and somewhat maddening. Local and state governments, for example, have no say over what is carried on railroad tracks, because the federal government regulates interstate commerce. Think of the chaos if individual cities tried to impose rules on railroads.

        Even though cities and counties have no control over railroads, they still want assurances that tracks and bridges are safe for the heavy, mile-long trains that carry highly flammable crude oil. We all do, don’t we?

        Thursday, Irving asked about the Stenner Creek Trestle, a picturesque, 85-foot-high steel railroad bridge just north of the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus that was built in 1894.

        Could Union Pacific reassure the county that the bridge is sound enough to carry those heavy tanker cars? As recently as June, a slow-moving Union Pacific oil train derailed near an elementary school and a water treatment plant on the Columbia River Gorge in Mosier, Ore. That derailment has weighed heavily on people’s minds around here.

        “We tried to request documentation from Union Pacific related to the stability of bridges,” county planner Ryan Hostetter told Irving, “and all we got was a form with a checked box that they had inspected.”

        “That’s kind of appalling,” said Irving.

        ::

        These are not idle questions, and they are being faced by communities all over the country.

        As my colleague Ralph Vartabedian has reported, some of the nation’s top safety experts believe “the government has misjudged the risk posed by the growing number of crude-oil trains.”

        The Mosier train derailment was caused by failing bolts that allowed the tracks to separate. This was particularly worrisome because the tracks had been inspected the previous week.

        “For me, that was a game changer,” said Benicia City Councilwoman Christina Strawbridge. “I just don’t think the rail industry has caught up with safety standards.”

        On Tuesday, Strawbridge and her colleagues on the Benicia City Council voted 5-0 to deny a project very much like the one under consideration in San Luis Obispo County. This one was proposed by energy behemoth Valero, which owns a refinery in Benicia.

        Unlike Phillips’ Santa Maria Refinery, which employs only 120 people full time, Valero is Benicia’s largest employer. The refinery provides nearly 25% of the city’s annual $31 million budget. It has been a good neighbor, said Strawbridge, and charitable.

        But she and her colleagues could not put their town at risk. After four years of debate, and a last-minute declaration by the federal Surface Transportation Board that oil companies cannot claim they are exempt from local regulations just because they use the railroads, the council said no to oil trains.

        “I’ve gotten a lot of hugs on the street,” Strawbridge told me Friday.

        They are well deserved.

        ::

        Next month, the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission is scheduled, finally, to vote on this thing. After that, the San Luis Obispo Board of Supervisors will weigh in.

        The wild card seems to be the board’s one open seat, in District 1, which comprises towns in the more conservative north side of the county. That supervisor has often functioned as a swing vote on the board. Two conservatives are vying for the seat, the aforementioned mayor of Paso Robles, Steve Martin, and John Peschong, a well-known Republican operative whose firm, Meridian Pacific Inc., received $262,000 from Phillips 66 in 2015, according to the oil company’s website.

        Maybe the leaders of San Luis Obispo County will look north to the tiny city of Benicia for inspiration. That town, after all, had far more at stake.

        They have a chance to do the right thing, not just for their county, but for all of California.

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