Study: rail crossings need safety upgrades

Repost from St. Cloud Times, St. Cloud MN
[Editor: Significant quote: “The MnDOT study recommends short-term upgrades at 10 grade crossings throughout the state. It also prioritizes more costly long-term upgrades, such as creating grade separations, at other crossings.”  IMPORTANT: The California Department of Transportation should take a few cues from Minnesota, commission a study and make similar recommendations.  See also Minnesota officials put price tag at $280M to upgrade oil train routes (MN Star-Tribune)  – RS]

Local rail crossings eyed for oil safety upgrades

Mark Sommerhauser, December 31, 2014
STC 0101 Train Crossings 1.jpg
A BNSF Railway freight train crosses East St. Germain Street as traffic waits Wednesday in St. Cloud. A study has recommended upgrading the crossing. (Photo: Kimm Anderson

Upgrades are on track for train crossings in St. Cloud and Clear Lake, part of a bid to improve safety on Minnesota’s main thoroughfares for shipping oil by rail.

The upgrades are recommended in a new Minnesota Department of Transportation study of rail lines that carry large volumes of oil freight.

As oil production in North Dakota has soared, state officials estimated eight to 13 oil trains go through Minnesota each day. State officials said Minnesota’s most heavily used rail artery for oil transport is the BNSF Railway line that goes through east St. Cloud and other area cities.

The MnDOT study recommends short-term upgrades at 10 grade crossings throughout the state. It also prioritizes more costly long-term upgrades, such as creating grade separations, at other crossings.

The study calls for medians to be installed at grade rail crossings at East St. Germain Street in St. Cloud and at Minnesota Highway 24 in Clear Lake.

The medians are meant to keep motorists from driving around lowered crossing arms. They would cost about $100,000 apiece, according to the study.

The study also calls for connecting and coordinating rail signals with traffic lights at the crossing on Sherburne County Road 11 near Big Lake. That would cost about $500,000, according to the study.

St. Cloud City Engineer Steve Foss said his office had preliminary talks with MnDOT about upgrading the East St. Germain Street crossing.

MnDOT will work with communities to finalize the study’s recommendations, according to a news release from the agency. MnDOT spokeswoman Sue Roe said the projects should move forward after that.

“They’re a ‘go,'” Roe said.

The MnDOT study stems from a 2014 state law directing the Minnesota Department of Transportation to study road crossings on rail lines carrying Bakken crude oil from North Dakota through Minnesota. The measure also appropriated $2 million to upgrade crossings.

About $244 million would be needed to implement the proposed grade separation projects. Those dollars aren’t currently available, Roe said.

The MnDOT news release said the study considers population, facilities and activity within a half-mile radius of each crossing. That distance represents the evacuation zone around an incident for a flammable material spill and fire.

The type of oil being transported from North Dakota, Bakken crude, has prompted particular safety concerns because of its volatility.

A string of rail disasters related to Bakken crude oil also has heightened awareness.

In July 2013, 47 people were killed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, when a train carrying Bakken crude derailed. Five months later, an oil train crashed and burned after colliding with a derailed freight train near Casselton, North Dakota.

Albany NY: Year in review top news – crude by rail

Repost from The Times Union, Albany NY
[Excellent month-by-month review of CBR developments in New York’s capital region, and an excellent group of 14 photos.  – RS]

Albany’s Top 10 stories: Region a hub in oil train surge

Converging lines drove growth in shipment
By Brian Nearing, December 29, 2014
View of the courtyard between the apartment buildings and the rail line that carries oil tankers to the Port of Albany  Wednesday, July 16, 2014, at Ezra Prentice Homes in Albany, N.Y. (Cindy Schultz / Times Union) Photo: Cindy Schultz / 00027815A
View of the courtyard between the apartment buildings and the rail line that carries oil tankers to the Port of Albany Wednesday, July 16, 2014, at Ezra Prentice Homes in Albany, N.Y. (Cindy Schultz / Times Union)

More oil trains kept a-rollin’ last year in Capital Region from the booming Bakken fields of North Dakota, where massive hydrofracking has helped drop national gasoline prices below $3 a gallon.

It was only two days into 2014 in the aftermath of a massive oil train derailment and fire in North Dakota when federal regulators warned that Bakken crude was more likely to catch fire than regular crude. And at year’s end, critics were warning that federal plans to phase out less-sturdy versions of the most common rail tankers during the next two years were too slow.

In between, massive trains pulling dozens of all-black tanker cars — carrying millions of gallons of crude and ominously called bomb trains by opponents — kept coming.

Because of its geographic location, with rail lines converging from all four directions and its access to the Hudson River, Albany has become a major oil shipping hub, which drew little public attention when the oil boom began taking shape some five years ago.

Some oil is unloaded at the port for shipment down the Hudson in barges or tankers, while other oil continues by rail either south along the Hudson River to coastal refineries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania or north along Lake Champlain to Canada.

And there are many more trains than just a couple years ago. For the first 10 months of 2014, more than 672,000 oil-filled tanker cars moved by rail in the U.S., an increase of more than 13 percent from the previous period of 2013, according to federal statistics. That was more than twice as many as the 300,000 rail oil tankers that moved for the same period in 2011.

But for part of the oil train story in Albany, 2014 will end the way it began, with the state Department of Environmental Conservation still weighing plans by an oil terminal operator at the port, Global Partners, to build a facility that heats crude oil to make it easier to pump in cold weather.

Bakken crude doesn’t have to be heated in the cold, leading many to conclude Global wants to begin accepting trains carrying Canadian tar sands oil, a thicker crude that must be heated to be pumped in the cold. Global has never said either way. DEC extended the comment period on the project eight times amid growing community opposition.

Global and another terminal operator, Houston-based Buckeye Partners, have DEC permission to ship 2.8 billion gallons of oil a year that is arriving by rail. By the end of January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had ordered a state review of safety and spill control plans while also pressing the Obama administration to act faster to toughen rules on the burgeoning energy network.

The governor did not wait for the report to act. By February, he was touting the first rail-safety inspections at the Port of Albany and elsewhere by state and federal regulators. By year’s end, eight such inspection “blitzes” had been done involving nearly 7,400 rail cars, including more than 5,300 oil tankers, and nearly 2,700 miles of track. A total of 840 defects have been uncovered.

In March, Albany County Executive Daniel P. McCoy slapped a county moratorium on Global’s crude heating project. By July, as many as 42 oil trains each week — each holding more than 100 million gallons of Bakken crude — were coming into Albany from North Dakota, according to figures released by the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services.

This summer, two major rail companies — CSX and Canadian Pacific — revealed information about their shipments under an emergency federal order intended to help inform local emergency workers of potential risks. CSX transports oil through 17 counties on a line that runs upstate from Lake Erie and eastward roughly along the Thruway corridor, while CP runs oil through five counties in the Capital Region and the North Country on the way from Canada.

The region can expect to see trains for a long time. By October, a Canadian Pacific official predicted increased transport of tar sands crude oil from Alberta in coming years would account for about 60 percent of the railroad’s oil revenue. That same month, the DEC rejected oil train opponents’ claims that the state had the power to immediately ban the most common type of tanker cars — called DOT-111s — from entering the port loaded with flammable oil.

Also in October, Global quietly withdrew plans before the DEC for a new oil terminal facility on the Hudson River in New Windsor, Orange County, so that oil could be moved from massive crude oil tanker trains onto vessels to continue downriver to coastal refineries. The company also announced it had voluntarily stopped using the oldest, least sturdy models of DOT-111s.

By December, officials in North Dakota announced new safety rules on Bakken crude oil shipments aimed at reducing its potential explosiveness, but the limits would not affect about 80 percent of oil arriving daily in Albany, leading oil train opponents to criticize the rules as almost meaningless.

And it looks like the surge of oil trains will continue to grow. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, two refineries in Linden, N.J., and Philadelphia are adding crude-by-rail terminals to handle up to 8.8 million gallons a day of incoming shipments.

For oil trains from North Dakota and Canada to reach these refineries, the trip would have to pass through Albany.

Latest derailment: Coal ash spill in Alberta near Banff National Park

Repost from Shale Plays Media
[Editor: Significant quote: “In the last five years, 99 trains have derailed in Alberta alone, and Canada has collectively seen over 400 in the same period.”  See chart below with details for all Canadian provinces.  – RS]

Train derailment near Banff spills coal ash into creek

Photo: Mary Schimke/Shale Plays Media
Photo: Mary Schimke/Shale Plays Media

A train derailed in Canada over the holiday weekend, pushing seven rail cars into a nearby creek. Although there was no volatile cargo to cause a flashback to Lac-Megantic, the train was carrying coal ash, which was spilled into the surrounding area.

The Canadian Pacific train derailed on December 26 at about 2 a.m. in Alberta near Banff National Park. A total of fifteen cars exited the track, seven of which were pushed into nearby 40 Mile Creek. Six cars were carrying fly ash, which is a byproduct of coal-fired power plants and an ingredient in cement. The train was also carrying lentils. Both the fly ash and the Mediterranean grain were spilled into 40 Mile Creek.

View image on Twitter
BreakngVancouverNews, @iVancouverNews Ash spilled in train derailment could harm fish in Banff creek #Vancouver #BC #News

Repair efforts for the track are already underway, as well as an investigation by the Transportation Safety Board. Officials are unsure what caused the derailment, and workers were quick to the scene in attempts to minimalize its environmental impact. After the spill, workers observed that the creek, which is usually clear, was ruddy and brown. Although officials have stated that the stream is currently unharmed by the spill, ThinkProgress reports that it could be more impactful than it seems.

The creek is downstream of Banff’s Bow River, but so far, officials say the spill isn’t affecting the river. However, the fly ash could ultimately alter the pH of the water and can create piles of sediment in the creek. It could also threaten the health of the creek’s fish, according to University of Alberta ecology professor David Schindler, because of the traces of metals it contains.

Environmentalists are concerned that these sediments could interfere with spawning habitats, even though the substance isn’t classified as dangerous under Canada’s Dangerous Goods Act. According to CBC News, large amounts of sediment in the water could prevent fish eggs from getting the proper amount of oxygen and the creek bed.

The lentils could also have a negative impact on the region. According to the Calgary Herald, the grain could draw bears into an unsafe territory. However, because most bears are in hibernation this time of year, experts say the immediate risk is minimal. The bigger concern is cleaning the lentils up before the bears in the area come out of hibernation to ensure it doesn’t draw them into danger.

The derailment has raised the already heightened concern that transporting certain goods by rail is dangerous. Rail is the primary means of transporting crude oil when pipelines are unavailable, and everyone fears more catastrophes like the explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, which killed some 30 people, and the disaster in Casselton, North Dakota, which brought the dangers of oil-by-rail close to home for many in the state. In the last five years, 99 trains have derailed in Alberta alone, and Canada has collectively seen over 400 in the same period. Across North America, citizens hope to avoid another calamity while officials work to come up with a viable solution.

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KCBS 740AM PART III: Emergency Plans Stall Out For Trains Transporting Bakken Crude Oil In The Bay Area

Repost from CBS SF Bay Area 740AM (Part 3 of 3)
[Editor: Important coverage of bridge and infrastructure safety issues by Bay Area radio station KCBS 740AM.  See and listen also to Part I, Aging Railway Infrastructure Raises Safety Concerns As Bay Area Readies To Receive Dramatic Increase Of Bakken Crude Oil AND Part II, Safety Info For Alhambra Trestle In Martinez And Other Bridges Kept By The Railroads.  – RS]

Emergency Plans Stall Out For Trains Transporting Bakken Crude Oil In The Bay Area

The Alhambra Trestle in Martinez. (Jeffrey Schaub/CBS)
The Alhambra Trestle in Martinez. (Jeffrey Schaub/CBS)

KCBS Cover Story Special, Part 3 of 3, Produced by Giancarlo RulliDecember 31, 2014.  KCBS reporter Jeffrey Shaub and producer Giancarlo Rulli investigate the Bay Area’s aging railway bridges that will carry increasing loads of highly volatile Bakken crude oil from North Dakota in this three-part KCBS Cover Story Special.

MARTINEZ (KCBS) – In May, U.S. transportation officials ordered the nation’s rail companies to disclose information to emergency responders on the routes and number of trains carrying a highly volatile crude oil through the Bay Area and elsewhere.

But some Bay Area and California officials claim the railroads are dragging their feet, stalling efforts to come with an emergency plan in case of a major disaster on the tracks.

According to the BNSF Railway, every 7-10 days, a 100-car long train carrying Bakken crude oil make sits way through Contra Costa County over the Alhambra trestle in Martinez.

Residents Bill Nichols and Jim Neu are among the many who have serious concerns. “The scary thing about the crude, it already has a proven track record of catastrophic accidents,” said Nichols. “These are ticking time bombs waiting to go off. If there was ever a derailment, it would affect the town with major casualties,” Neu said.

Contra Costa County Fire Protection District Marshal Robert Marshall worries about a train derailing from that height. “If you drop something from that height, it’s going to create a lot of damage.”

Marshall said he’s been working to create an emergency response plan, but needs to know how many trains are coming and when. But he said the state Office of Emergency Services can’t tell him. State OES Deputy Director Kelly Huston said that’s because the railroads haven’t provided him with that information.

“We’d love to be able to look it up online like an Amtrak schedule and be able to tell specifically when a terrain is coming through, where it’s going and give that direct access to local first responders,” Huston said.

KCBS has learned that BNSF sent a confidential letter to the Office of Emergency Services in September, informing them that Contra Costa County will see at least a 25 percent increase in Bakken fuel trains. But BNSF refused to say exactly how many and when, citing federal regulations and that they consider the information to be a confidential trade secret.

Bay Area Congressman John Garamendi disagrees. “It must be made available to the local emergency response agencies,” Garamendi said.

BNSF spokesperson Lena Kent said the company’s track record of moving hazardous materials speaks for itself.

“We handle all of our commodities with safety at the forefront. It’s far safer to move hazardous materials over our nation’s railroads then on our nation’s highways,” she said.

But longtime Martinez City Councilman Mark Ross said the railroad needs to be a better partner by being transparent and ensuring public safety. “Why don’t you get ahead of it, let’s work with government, work with the cities and communities that you’re running through, and solve the problem now.”

Hear the entire three-part cover story series.