Tag Archives: American Association of Railroads (AAR)

NPR: What’s in those tank cars near the Amtrak derailment?

Repost from State Impact Pennsylvania, NPR.org
[Editor:  Quote: “Conrail knows what’s in the cars on their tracks but considers it proprietary information, not to be revealed unless there’s an emergency.”  – RS]

What’s in those tank cars near the Amtrak derailment?

By Susan Phillips, May 13, 2015 | 6:12 PM

Emergency personnel work at the scene of a deadly train derailment, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Philadelphia. The Amtrak train, headed to New York City, derailed and crashed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, killing at least six people and injuring dozens of others. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Emergency personnel work at the scene of a deadly train derailment, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Philadelphia. The Amtrak train, headed to New York City, derailed and crashed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, killing at least six people and injuring dozens of others. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

News footage of the Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia Tuesday night shows nearby tank cars that look similar to the rail cars carrying crude oil or other hazardous material across the country each day. In aerial photos, it looks as if the Amtrak train, traveling at 100 miles an hour, nearly missed creating an even greater catastrophe, if it had struck an oil train, say, or a train carrying chlorine gas. Residents quickly took to twitter, wondering what about the content of those tank cars, and whether it was hazardous.

“This could be just one more in a litany of near misses,” said David Masur, director of PennEnvironment, an activist group working to ban oil trains.

It wouldn’t be far-fetched for a passenger rail car to collide with an oil train, dozens of oil trains run through the state on their way to Philadelphia and South Jersey refineries each week. In fact, Norfolk Southern runs oil trains on a track that runs above Amtrak lines, close to the derailment. Bakken crude oil from North Dakota crosses those lines daily, traveling across the Delaware river, and down to refineries in South Jersey. WHYY reporter Tom MacDonald says he saw the black tankers about 50 yards from the derailed Amtrak train.

But it’s still unclear what is in those tank cars.

“It could be corn oil, it could be very benign stuff,” said Conrail spokesman John Enright.

The accident occurred on Amtrak’s rail lines, but the scene is very close to a Conrail yard, which Enright says is used for local transport.

“I know the sensitivity to the whole crude oil situation,” said Enright. “One shouldn’t presume anything.”

Enright says Conrail knows what’s in the cars on their tracks but considers it proprietary information, not to be revealed unless there’s an emergency.

“If there was an incident then that information would be readily available to [first responders],” he said.

In this case, the Amtrak train did not hit any nearby freight cars, so the contents of the blank tankers remains a mystery.

Norfolk Southern, which operates the oil trains that cross the Amtrak line, did not respond to requests for comment. And the American Association of Railroads would also not comment on the freight rail traffic in the area. Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management would not comment on the contents, saying they were focusing on the accident itself.

But rail safety experts say the accident could have been much worse if the Amtrak train did hit those black tank cars, and if those cars were carrying explosive or flammable material.

A passenger is carried following an Amtrak train crash Tuesday, May 12, 2015, in Philadelphia. Train 188 was traveling from Washington to New York City. (AP Photo/Paul Cheung)
A passenger is carried following an Amtrak train crash Tuesday, May 12, 2015, in Philadelphia. Train 188 was traveling from Washington to New York City. (AP Photo/Paul Cheung)

Fred Millar is an independent rail safety expert.

“Having the oil train sitting there is not necessarily an undangerous situation,” said Millar.

Millar says, although it’s rare, trains have been known to run into each other. Federal investigators recently released a report about an oil train explosion in North Dakota in 2013, where the train hit a derailed freight train.

“One kind of industrial accident can set off another,” he said.

Not only would the death toll be higher, but the neighborhood would need to be evacuated.

Jim Blaze is an economist and railroad consultant who worked in the railroad industry for 30 years.

“Let’s say there was [hazardous material] in those rail cars,” said Blaze. “If the cars cracked open, it could have been an explosive force and caused a chain reaction. What would the casualty rate have been as a result? Could you imagine evacuating 750,000 people? What’s that going to cost? What’s the lost business revenue?”

Not only is it unclear what’s in those nearby tank cars. It’s unclear if Philadelphia’s first responders would be ready. The city’s Office of Emergency Management says it’s done exercises to prepare. But it’s not clear if the exercise has included passenger rail cars.

Pennsylvania’s Emergency Management Agency spokesman Cory Angell says that’s not a scenario he’s heard discussed.

Delaware County’s Office of Emergency Management says the risk of an Amtrak or regional rail line hitting an oil train is low because the passenger rail cars don’t run in close proximity to the oil trains as they do in Philadelphia. Ed Truitt runs Delco’s OEM.

“We’ve looked at a lot of different scenarios and that was never conceived as being a threat in Delaware County,” said Truitt.

Truitt says the rail cars only travel between midnight and 5 AM through the county.

Meanwhile, the American Petroleum Institute filed a lawsuit on Tuesday to block the implementation of new oil train safety rules.


AP EXCLUSIVE: DOT predicts fuel-hauling trains will derail 10 times a year; cost $4 billion; 100’s killed

Repost from Associated Press News
[Editor: Download the July, 2014 Department of Transportation analysis here.  A word of caution: a reputable source writes, “On a closer inspection, PHMSA conceded that the numbers it used for the analysis are flawed and that the scenarios lined out in the AP story are assuming no new regulations are enacted.”  That said, my source also wrote, “We didn’t need a study to tell us there was a problem.”- RS]

AP Exclusive: Fuel-hauling trains could derail at 10 a year

By Matthew Brown and Josh Funk, Feb. 22, 2015 12:00 PM ET

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – The federal government predicts that trains hauling crude oil or ethanol will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades, causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.

The projection comes from a previously unreported analysis by the Department of Transportation that reviewed the risks of moving vast quantities of both fuels across the nation and through major cities. The study completed last July took on new relevance this week after a train loaded with crude derailed in West Virginia, sparked a spectacular fire and forced the evacuation of hundreds of families.

Monday’s accident was the latest in a spate of fiery derailments, and senior federal officials said it drives home the need for stronger tank cars, more effective braking systems and other safety improvements.

“This underscores why we need to move as quickly as possible getting these regulations in place,” said Tim Butters, acting administrator for the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

The volume of flammable liquids transported by rail has risen dramatically over the last decade, driven mostly by the oil shale boom in North Dakota and Montana. This year, rails are expected to move nearly 900,000 car loads of oil and ethanol in tankers. Each can hold 30,000 gallons of fuel.

Based on past accident trends, anticipated shipping volumes and known ethanol and crude rail routes, the analysis predicted about 15 derailments in 2015, declining to about five a year by 2034.

The 207 total derailments over the two-decade period would cause $4.5 billion in damage, according to the analysis, which predicts 10 “higher consequence events” causing more extensive damage and potential fatalities.

If just one of those more severe accidents occurred in a high-population area, it could kill more than 200 people and cause roughly $6 billion in damage.

“Such an event is unlikely, but such damages could occur when a substantial number of people are harmed or a particularly vulnerable environmental area is affected,” the analysis concluded.

The two fuels travel through communities with an average population density of 283 people per square kilometer, according to the federal analysis. That means about 16 million Americans live within a half-kilometer of one of the lines.

Such proximity is equivalent to the zone of destruction left by a July 2013 oil train explosion that killed 47 people and leveled much of downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec, the analysis said.

Damage at Lac-Megantic has been estimated at $1.2 billion or higher.

A spokesman for the Association of American Railroads said the group was aware of the Department of Transportation analysis but had no comment on its derailment projections.

“Our focus is to continue looking at ways to enhance the safe movement of rail transportation,” AAR spokesman Ed Greenberg said.

Both the railroad group and the Railway Supply Institute, which represents tank car owners and manufacturers, said federal officials had inflated damage estimates and exaggerated risk by assuming an accident even worse than Lac-Megantic, which was already an outlier because it involved a runaway train traveling 65 mph, far faster than others that had accidents.

To get to refineries on the East and West coasts and the Gulf of Mexico, oil shipments travel through more than 400 counties, including major metropolitan areas such as Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, Newark and dozens of other cities, according to routing information obtained by The Associated Press through public record requests filed with more than two dozen states.

Since 2006, the U.S. and Canada have seen at least 21 oil-train accidents and 33 ethanol train accidents involving a fire, derailment or significant amount of fuel spilled, according to federal accident records reviewed by the AP.

At least nine of the trains, including the CSX train that derailed in West Virginia, were hauling oil from the Northern Plains’ Bakken region that is known for being highly volatile. Of those, seven resulted in fires.

Both the West Virginia accident and a Jan. 14 oil train derailment and fire in Ontario involved recently built tank cars that were supposed to be an improvement to a decades-old model in wide use that has proven susceptible to spills, fires and explosions.

Safety officials are pushing to make the tanker-car fleet even stronger and confronting opposition from energy companies and other tank car owners.

Industry representatives say it could take a decade to retrofit and modify more than 50,000 tank cars, not the three years anticipated by federal officials, who assumed many cars would be put to new use hauling less-volatile Canadian tar-sands oil.

The rail industry’s overall safety record steadily improved over the past decade, dropping from more than 3,000 accidents annually to fewer than 2,000 in 2013, the most recent year available, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

But the historical record masks a spike in crude and ethanol accidents over the same time frame. Federal officials also say the sheer volume of ethanol and crude that is being transported – often in trains more than a mile long – sets the two fuels apart.

Most of the proposed rules that regulators are expected to release this spring are designed to prevent a spill, rupture or other failure during a derailment. But they will not affect the likelihood of a crash, said Allan Zarembski, who leads the railroad engineering and safety program at the University of Delaware.

Derailments can happen in many ways. A rail can break underneath a train. An axle can fail. A vehicle can block a crossing. Having a better tank car will not change that, but it should reduce the odds of a tank car leaking or rupturing, he said.

Railroads last year voluntarily agreed to reduce oil train speeds to 40 mph in urban areas. Regulators said they are considering lowering the speed limit to 30 mph for trains not equipped with advanced braking systems. Oil and rail industries say it could cost $21 billion to develop and install the brakes, with minimal benefits.

Vallejo Times-Herald: Railroads sue California over oil train safety rules

Repost from The Vallejo Times-Herald

Railroads sue California over oil train safety rules

Union Pacific, BNSF Railway argue federal law pre-empts state regulations
By Tony Burchyns, October 9, 2014

California’s two major railroad companies filed a lawsuit this week to argue that the state lacks authority to impose its own safety requirements on federally regulated crude oil train traffic.

The lawsuit follows a new state law imposing regulations on the transportation of crude oil by rail in California. Union Pacific and BNSF Railway filed the case Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Sacramento to argue that federal law pre-empts California and other states from enforcing such regulatory regimes.

“The new state law requires railroads to take a broad range of steps to prevent and respond to oil spills, on top of their myriad federal obligations concerning precisely the same subject matter,” the railroads argue. “UP, BNSF and other members of (the American Association of Railroads) will be barred from operating within California unless a California regulator approves oil spill prevention and response plans that they will have to create, pursuant to a panoply of California-specific requirements.”

The railroads also will be required to obtain a “certificate of financial responsibility” from the state, indicating they are able to cover damages resulting from an oil spill. Failure to comply with the new state rules will expose railroad employees to jail time and fines, according to the lawsuit.

The California Office of Spill Prevention and Response, which was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, has declined to comment on the pending litigation.

The state law was passed in June following a sharp rise in crude-by-rail shipments in California from 2012 to 2013 and several high-profile oil train derailments in other states as well as Canada. In the Bay Area, crude-by-rail projects in Benicia, Richmond, Pittsburg, Martinez and Stockton have drawn local attention to the prospect of mile-long oil trains snaking through neighborhoods, mountain passes and sensitive habitats such as the Suisun Marsh.

Last week, California Attorney General Kamala Harris sent a letter to Benicia challenging plans to ship 70,000 barrels of crude daily by train to the city’s Valero refinery. Valero is seeking city approval to build a rail terminal to receive two 50-car oil trains daily from Roseville. The train shipments would originate in North Dakota or possibly Canada.

Harris, the state’s top law enforcement officer, criticized the city for underestimating the project’s safety and environmental risks. The letter was among hundreds received by the city in response to its initial environmental impact report. City officials say they are in the process of responding to all of the comments, and plan to do so before the project’s next, yet-to-be-scheduled public hearing is held.

Bearing failures, accidental decoupling: Rail industry blocking technology to prevent derailments

Repost from The Washington Times

Rail industry blocking technology to prevent derailments

By Robert Ahern – – Monday, September 8, 2014
FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2013, file photo, a BNSF Railway train hauls crude oil near Wolf Point, Mont. The U.S. Department of Transportation ordered railroads last month to give state officials specifics on oil train routes and volumes so emergency responders can better prepare for accidents. North Dakota's State Emergency Response Commission unanimously voted to release the state's information Wednesday June 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)
FILE – In this Nov. 6, 2013, file photo, a BNSF Railway train hauls crude oil near Wolf Point, Mont. The U.S. Department of Transportation ordered railroads last month to give state officials specifics on oil train routes and volumes so emergency responders can better prepare for accidents. North Dakota’s State Emergency Response Commission unanimously voted to release the state’s information Wednesday June 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

America’s recent energy boom has made North Dakota the No. 2 oil-producing state behind Texas and has brought jobs and prosperity to the state and the region.

It has also brought increased rail travel as the oil is transported from Bakken shale fields. Unfortunately, increased rail traffic has coincided with a rise in the number of rail accidents, including derailments. The most recent came last December, when a moving train carrying crude oil struck a derailed train near Casselton, igniting a massive fireball and causing an evacuation. Thankfully, there were no injuries.

Despite the railroad industry’s many advances, some problems have persisted for years, frustrating rail engineers. Bearing failure that often leads to derailments is one. Accidental decoupling is another. So are poor truck designs.

The good news is that innovative companies from outside the railroad industry have devised solutions. The bad news is that these solutions have been shunned by an industry hostile to those outside its closed culture. This stonewalling puts American lives and freight at risk. Congress needs to intervene.

Consider the strange case of Columbus Castings, of Columbus, Ohio – a railroad industry outsider, despite being the nation’s largest steel foundry. Columbus Castings created a product called the Z-Knuckle, which prevents accidental uncoupling.

The Z-Knuckle met the railroad industry’s newly created standard for such devices. But in an inexplicable twist, because the Z-Knuckle was the only device that met the standard, the industry refused to authorize its use. Instead, it simply chose not to enforce its own standard.

Other nonsensical examples abound. Several companies, including Amsted Rail, Standard Truck Car, National Railway Equipment and A. Stucki Co., have created advanced trucks – the framework that holds a rail car’s four wheels – that are less likely to derail and use less energy, due to enhanced suspension. These have been rejected by the railroad industry.

Stage 8 Locking Fasteners of San Rafael, Calif., took on the issue of derailment caused by wheel-bearing failure, the nation’s third-largest cause of train derailments, according to a 2012 University of Illinois study.

Wheel bearings are the round, metal rods inside a rail car’s wheel assembly that help the wheels roll smoothly. Bearings fail because the screws holding the bearing end caps — which maintain proper tension in the bearing — vibrate loose after thousands of miles of service. This can lead to derailments.

The rail industry knows this is a serious problem. It has tried for 50 years to devise a reliable screw-locking technology of its own, but to no avail. The best locking system the rail industry has been able to come up with still allows a failure rate of 23 percent. This is unacceptable.

Rail industry engineers have blamed the wheel bearings themselves, theorizing that the material inside the bearings was breaking down, causing them to lose their clamp on the screws, which then vibrated loose.

That answer obscures the real problem and provided a windfall to the bearing-replacement companies that would stand to lose profits if a credible screw-locking system is devised.

In 2009, a better system was devised. Stage 8 invented the Cap Screw Locking System designed to keep rail car wheel screws from vibrating loose. But it ran into the mighty rail industry bureaucracy. All new products that companies want to market to the nation’s rail carriers must be approved by the American Association of Railroads (AAR), the freight rail industry’s powerful trade group.

The organization withheld approval for years, blocking the new product that would threaten the revenue stream of bearing-replacement suppliers, who are cozy with Big Rail.

Stage 8 continued to hack through the bureaucratic thicket and when daylight appeared, the AAR set up another hurdle: A field test intended to prove the device’s failure. Instead, after 150,000 miles of the AAR’s own, real-world testing on rail cars, hauling coal from Wyoming to Missouri, the locking device showed no failures; not a single screw was loosened. It was a complete success.

Many companies have created groundbreaking solutions to problems that have bedeviled the railroad industry for years. Congress should act on their behalf – and on behalf of the railroads themselves and their many users – to help make America’s railroads safer. The passage of legislation would repair the railroad’s broken system.

Congress should adopt legislation that would require the Federal Railroad Administration – the government agency that oversees the rail industry – to adopt and enforce mandatory safety standards that would ensure bearing failures, decoupling and other accidents do not happen. This would permit railroads to use any technology – from inside or outside the industry — that meets the standards.  This would lead to safer railways across the country – and fewer derailments in places like North Dakota.

Robert J. Ahern is director and executive vice president of Stage 8 Locking Fasteners Inc.