Tag Archives: Chicago

Most Commuter Rails Won’t Meet Deadline For Mandated Safety Systems

Repost from National Public Radio

Most Commuter Rails Won’t Meet Deadline For Mandated Safety Systems

By David Schaper, June 03, 2015 3:48 AM ET
Despite Congress mandating all railroads be equipped with a Positive Train Control system by the end of the year, Chicago's Metra system isn't expected to reach that goal until 2019. Most commuter trains won't meet the deadline.
Despite Congress mandating all railroads be equipped with a Positive Train Control system by the end of the year, Chicago’s Metra system isn’t expected to reach that goal until 2019. Most commuter trains won’t meet the deadline. M. Spencer Green/AP

Many investigators say Positive Train Control (PTC), an automated safety system, could have prevented last month’s Amtrak train derailment. Amtrak officials have said they will have PTC installed throughout the northeast corridor by the end of this year, which is the deadline mandated by Congress.

But the vast majority of other commuter railroad systems, which provided nearly 500 million rides in 2014, won’t be able to fully implement positive train control for several more years.

On the southern edge of downtown Chicago, a few dozen commuter trains idle as they prepare to take thousands of people from their jobs downtown to their homes in city neighborhoods, and suburbs both near and far. Just behind the tracks is a nondescript, two-story brick building that houses the control center for all these rail lines, and the brains of what will be Metra’s positive train control system.

“Out of this building, we control the Metra electric district, the Rock Island,” Sal Cuevas, chief dispatcher of the control facility. “Over 300, 350, maybe 400 trains out of this facility that we control.”

That’s about half of the commuter trains Metra moves into and out of Chicago each day. Cuevas is tracking their movement, their speed and any potential problems or delays they might encounter, from bad weather to maintenance crews. It’s done in coordination with the 500 freight trains that move through Chicago every day.

Getting positive train control on line won’t make his job any easier, but Cuevas says it will make the movement of all those trains safer.

“Integrating that system with our current train control system will hopefully minimize incidents,” he says.

But that won’t be happening for some time.

Positive Train Control is a system that integrates computer, satellite and radio technologies to slow down or stop a train if the engineer becomes incapacitated or makes a mistake, such as missing a stop signal or going too fast around a curve.

Seven years ago, Congress mandated all freight and passenger railroads implement positive train control by the end of this year. But Metra’s executive director Don Orseno says Chicago’s commuter trains won’t make the deadline, and it won’t even be close.

“Our expectation for Metra to be fully operational is in 2019,” he says. “There’s a lot of reasons why its taking so long. Number one: it wasn’t invented.”

Orseno says railroads have had to develop PTC from scratch and it’s a very complicated system. Information about track conditions, speed limits, the movement of other trains and all kinds of other data has to be downloaded into computers in the railroads’ control centers and in the locomotives.

Those computers have to be able to communicate with every track signal and every other train. So there’s new signaling equipment to install, new radios, new computer hardware and new software to run it all, because these positive train control systems have to be fully inter-operable between all the railroads and all their equipment.

In Chicago, the nation’s busiest rail hub, that’s 1,300 and passenger trains a day.

“We operate the most complex system in the country, there’s no question about that,” Orseno says.

He adds that in mandating positive train control and imposing the December 2015 deadline, Congress provided almost no funding for it.

“The system comes at a very expensive cost,” he says. “We’re looking anywhere from about $350 million for this system, and you’re talking about commuter rail service. There’s not that kind of money out there.”

And it’s not just Chicago’s commuter rail agency that’s struggling to build, fund and implement positive train control. Most commuter trains across the country won’t have it by the end of this year.

“About 29 percent of our systems anticipate they’ll be able to make the goal this year, about seven systems in the country,” says Michael Melaniphy, president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association.

Melaniphy says some commuter rail agencies will need another three to five years to complete PTC installations because of the scale and complexity of the systems and the resources needed.

“There are only so many people that are experts in this area,” he says. “They can only produce so many of the radio sets that are needed and the spectrum that’s needed to run those radios in a given time.”

Acquiring that radio spectrum for PTC has been especially difficult for commuter railroads.

“Many of the operators will be able to obtain in some segments but maybe not along the entire corridor,” Melaniphy says. “They have to figure out who owns the spectrum in a given corridor and negotiate with them to either sell it or lease it.”

Melaniphy is hoping Congress will allow the FCC to provide commuter railroads with the radio spectrum they need for free. He’s also asking Congress to pay at least some of the estimated $3.5 billion cost of PTC, and extend the deadline to give commuter and freight railroads more time to implement a safety system they all agree they want and need to implement.

Rail Logjams Are Putting The Whole US Economic Recovery At Risk

Repost from Business Insider
[Editor: Significant quote: “Many experts blame an incomplete recovery from last winter’s freight backlogs, coupled with record crops and rising competition with crude oil tankers for track space amid an economic recovery.”  – RS] 

Rail Logjams Are Putting The Whole US Economic Recovery At Risk

Susan Taylor and Solarina Ho, Reuters, Aug. 15, 2014

TORONTO (Reuters) – More than eight months after an extreme winter began snarling North American rail traffic, a Reuters analysis of industry data shows delays lingering, raising the risk of a second winter of chaos on the rails.

Across the continent’s seven largest operators, trains ran almost 8 percent slower on average and sat idle at key terminals for nearly three hours longer in the second quarter than a year earlier, data from the main railroads, known as Class 1, show.

While Canada’s rail operators have nearly recovered, many U.S. operators lag far behind.

The concerns are sharpest in the U.S. Farm Belt, with lawmakers fearful that the biggest crops on record may be slow to reach markets or could even rot.

Rail logjams contributed to the economic slowdown early in the year, rippling across corporate America and affecting everything from car makers to ethanol producers.

Many experts blame an incomplete recovery from last winter’s freight backlogs, coupled with record crops and rising competition with crude oil tankers for track space amid an economic recovery.

“It’s like a sinking ship – you’re bailing out at one end, but it’s coming in the other end just as fast, if not faster,” said Citigroup Global Markets transportation analyst Christian Wetherbee.

Performance fell behind as loads grew: between April and June, U.S. rail carload volumes grew 5.4 percent and intermodal traffic, which include shipments partly by rail, rose 8 percent, Association of American Railroads (AAR) data shows.

At the same time, the industry is producing “tremendous” margins, profit and cash flow, with some companies setting records, said rail analyst Tony Hatch.

The largest operators plan to spend about 18 to 20 percent of annual revenue this year on new terminals, track, sidings and equipment to help boost capacity and efficiency, according to Thomson Reuters data. That is slightly higher than recent average annual spending.

Some shippers complain that spending hasn’t been sufficient to meet demand, especially in bad weather. Still, many investment projects are multi-year improvements that can’t quickly fix traffic jams.

“We’re criticized … because we haven’t put infrastructure in to handle the growth. But then when you try to put infrastructure in, the not-in-my-backyard lobby kicks in and says: We don’t want you here,” Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd Chief Executive Hunter Harrison said on a recent earnings conference call.

Over the four decades to 2000, the nation’s major track system shrank by about half, in terms of miles of rails, according to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.

Although Berkshire Hathaway’s BNSF Railway Co is spending a record $5 billion this year, its performance lagged those of competitors last quarter.  BNSF trains traveled 11 percent slower than year-ago speeds, and stayed at terminals for 18 percent longer.

Fadi Chamoun, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets, said BNSF is unlikely to recover until mid- to late-2015 due to the amount of work it must do.

In recent years, BNSF accounted for some 50 percent of the entire rail industry’s volume growth, analysts said. The company says it handles up to 15 percent of U.S. intercity freight.

BNSF declined to respond to Reuters’ questions about its performance metrics. The Fort Worth, Texas-based railway has said it is working closely with shippers to clear backlogs and adding track, locomotives and crews.

The other four U.S. Class 1 railroads are CSX Corp, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern Corp and Union Pacific Corp.

Kansas City Southern and Norfolk Southern did not respond to requests for comment. CSX said it was investing in strategic capacity additions and was adding train crews and locomotives to restore performance and support growth. Union Pacific CEO Jack Koraleski told Reuters that the railroad’s performance has been improving even as volumes have been increasing, adding that it has worked hard to address disruptions and customer issues.

Cowen & Co analyst Jason Seidl said winter exacerbated problems for the industry. “As they were trying to dig out, the volumes took off,” he said.


In the United States, more than 40 percent of goods, valued at more than $550 billion, are shipped by railroad each year on some 140,000 miles of track. Canada’s 30,100 miles of track carry half of the country’s export goods.

Frozen transportation links contributed to a nearly 3 percent contraction in the U.S. economy during the first quarter, the New York Federal Reserve said last week.

Lawmakers and the $395 billion agricultural industry fear that trains may fail to clear last year’s record-breaking crops in the Midwestern U.S. Farm Belt, which could strand part of this summer’s grain harvest.

“We’re sounding the alarms right now,” North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp told Reuters. “We believe the 2014 crop could be taken off the fields and there won’t be any place to store it, because of the lack of ability to move product by rail.”

BNSF and Canada’s CP Rail operate the main rail networks in North Dakota, where farmers vie for space with some 700,000 barrels per day of crude oil shipped by rail from the state’s Bakken Shale.

“You can’t see these massive increases in crude-by-rail and not appreciate that they are creating problems for moving agricultural products,” Heitkamp said.

Members of Congress, utility companies, the United States Department of Agriculture and others are asking the U.S. rail regulator, the Surface Transportation Board, for help.

“With remaining grain in storage due to the backlog, grain elevators in some locations, such as South Dakota and Minnesota, could run out of storage capacity during the upcoming harvest, requiring grain be stored on the ground and running the risk of spoiling. The projected size of the upcoming harvest creates a high potential for loss,” USDA Under Secretary Edward Avalos wrote to the regulator this month.

Utility Xcel Energy said coal deliveries to a key Midwest facility were behind schedule.

“When we run out of coal, the plant can’t produce electricity. We are right in the middle of summer when air-conditioning load creates our highest levels of electric demand,” Xcel Chief Executive Ben Fowke wrote in a letter to the STB at the end of July.

Since an April 10 hearing on rail service, the STB has issued several orders, primarily involving CP and BNSF. The most recent directive, issued in June, required the two railways to publicly file their plans to resolve their backlog on grain orders and provide a weekly update on grain car service. It declined to comment on complaints or its plans.

Earlier this month, the Canadian government ordered Canadian National Railway Co and CP to further boost regulated grain shipments, in an effort to prevent a repeat of last season’s backlog.

Recent University of Minnesota data showed that transportation bottlenecks cost the state’s soybean, corn and spring wheat farmers nearly $100 million between March and May.

United Parcel Service Inc, the world’s largest courier company, said that “very poor” railroad performance last quarter raised its costs. Even passenger service Amtrak has been affected, with some of the trains it runs on Class 1 tracks falling far behind schedule.

Canada’s biggest rails, CN and CP, operated their trains at speeds 4.7 percent and 3 percent slower in the second quarter than year-ago levels respectively, better than most U.S. rivals.

CN said its ability to avoid Chicago, a hub notorious for bottlenecks, helped its sector-leading recovery. In 2009, CN bought a rail network that encircles Chicago, the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway Co.


Chicago’s third-snowiest winter on record severely tangled traffic at a hub that handles one quarter of the nation’s freight-by-rail and has recently become a major conduit for Bakken crude.

Data from Union Pacific shows its trains idled in Chicago for an average 65 hours in February, around double the typical time for much of 2013.

Following a severe 1999 blizzard that paralyzed trains for days, government and railroads launched a $3.8 billion plan to improve the Chicago system.

That’s not a quick solution for the industry’s woes.

“It takes a long time for new lines and new terminals to get built, and additional locomotives to be delivered and additional crews to be trained,” said Steve Ditmeyer, an adjunct professor at Michigan State University’s Railway Management Program.

“There’s a time lag that the railroads cannot snap their finger and, all of a sudden, get out of the current problem.”

(With additional reporting by Joshua Schneyer and Jonathan Leff in New York, and Sagarika Jaisinghani in Bangalore; editing by Joshua Schneyer and Peter Henderson)

Chicago, nation’s busiest rail hub: firefighters unprepared, lacking foam and equipment

Repost from the Chicago Tribune

Area poorly prepared for crude-oil train fires

Stocks of firefighting foam few and far between

By Richard Wronski, Tribune reporter  |  May 25, 2014
Cherry Valley accidentIn 2009, a Canadian National freight train hauling 75 tank cars with ethanol derailed and erupted into a massive fireball in Cherry Valley, near Rockford. Although firefighters had about 400 gallons of foam on hand and more on the way, they concluded it wasn’t enough to put out the fire. (National Transportation Safety Board / June 19, 2009)

Few Chicago-area fire departments have enough firefighting foam and equipment to respond effectively to the roaring infernos seen near Rockford and elsewhere in recent years when multiple railroad tank cars carrying flammable liquids derail and explode, the Tribune has found.

So-called unit trains, rolling pipelines with more than a hundred tank cars hauling millions of gallons of crude oil, have become game changers for emergency responders, posing new threats and requiring updated safety strategies, experts say.

Such trains have become a common sight in the Chicago area, the nation’s busiest rail hub. Each day, one-fourth of U.S. freight traffic — nearly 500 freight trains and 37,500 rail cars — passes through the city and suburbs, experts say, although it’s unknown exactly how much of this traffic is crude oil.

Yet, the majority of communities lack the thousands of gallons of foam and equipment — like airport “crash trucks” — to respond immediately and effectively to smother flames fueled by one or more railroad tank cars, officials say.

Most fire departments stock only enough 5-gallon containers of foam to extinguish fires involving vehicles and tanker trucks. Larger incidents, involving train loads of flammable liquids, would overwhelm individual departments, officials say.

“We couldn’t carry enough 5-gallon drums and couldn’t switch them out fast enough to get that kind of foam on a tank car or any fire like that,” said Jim Arie, Barrington’s fire chief. “That requires very specialized equipment and personnel.

“It’s truly the worst-case scenario for a fire department, and it’s not the kind of thing you can staff for or have enough equipment for.”

These days, tank-car trains run frequently through scores of suburbs on the tracks that Canadian National Railway Co. acquired in 2009 from the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway, Arie said.

“We may be two years, five years or 12 years before we have an incident. We can’t staff up for that every day, day in, day out, knowing that it may be way down the road before something happens,” Arie said.

In Aurora, which has nine fire engines and 195 firefighters, including a 27-member hazardous-materials team, a fiery derailment would result in a “major disaster,” said Chief John Lehman. Both the Canadian National and the BNSF Railway Co. run tank-car trains through Aurora.

“We could do all the training in the world and have all the equipment in the world, but if one of those (trains) comes off the rails and creates an issue in a very densely populated area, our exposure would be very significant,” Lehman said. “Our ability to deal with an incident of that magnitude would be very taxing.”

Nationwide, crude shipments have grown from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to more than 400,000 in 2013, according to the Association of American Railroads.

The industry stands by its performance, saying more than 99.9 percent of its shipments arrive safely, according to the railroad association.

To deal with any large-scale emergency, nearly all of the state’s 1,200 fire departments depend on each other for help as part of the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, or MABAS. Besides responding to major events like fires and natural disasters, MABAS also has 42 specialized operations teams for hazardous materials.

MABAS mobilized crews and equipment from several departments June 19, 2009, when a Canadian National freight train hauling 75 tank cars with ethanol derailed and erupted into a massive fireball in Cherry Valley, near Rockford.

Although firefighters had about 400 gallons of foam on hand and more on the way, they concluded it wasn’t enough to put out the roaring fire, which eventually spread to 13 tank cars, said Steve Pearson, who was then chief of the North Park Fire Protection District in Machesney Park.

Unable to get close enough to attack the intense flames, which rose hundreds of feet high, firefighters could do little but let the blaze burn itself out and go into a “defensive position” a half-mile away, Pearson told the National Transportation Safety Board forum on railroad safety last month.

“Even if we had an endless amount of foam, it could not have been safely applied to this incident,” he said.

But firefighters stress the importance of responding to such incidents as swiftly as possible with ample foam before they get out of control.

Although some people were rescued, a 44-year-old woman in a car stopped at the train crossing was fatally burned and several others were injured. Her pregnant 19-year-old daughter lost her baby.

It wasn’t until 5 p.m. the next day, nearly nine hours after the derailment, that all fires were extinguished and residents could return to about 600 homes that were evacuated, Pearson said.

Increased risks

The roster of fiery derailments has steadily grown along with the flow of volatile crude oil from the booming Bakken fields of North Dakota, Montana and Canada.

Nine oil train derailments have occurred in the U.S. and Canada since March 2013, several resulting in intense fires and evacuations, according to the NTSB.

By far the worst occurred when a runaway oil train derailed and exploded July 3, 2013, in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Sixty-three tank cars spilled more than 1.3 million gallons of oil. Forty-seven people were killed and 30 buildings destroyed, officials said.

Earlier this month, Canadian officials charged the railroad — which was then owned by Rosemont-based Rail World Inc. — and three of its employees with criminal negligence in connection with the incident.

Reacting to the spate of incidents, the NTSB convened a two-day forum last month in Washington to address the safety of shipping crude oil and ethanol by rail. More than 20 fire officials, federal administrators, railroad and tank car industry representatives, and other experts testified.

One focus was the crash-worthiness of the tank cars. The NTSB has warned for decades that older-model cars like those involved in the Cherry Valley incident, known as DOT-111s, are prone to rupture in a derailment.

The Canadian government has ordered a phaseout of the DOT-111s over the next three years unless they’re retrofitted with better protection in case of derailment. So far, the U.S. Department of Transportation has only recommended that shippers avoid using the DOT-111s “to the extent possible.”

The U.S. is being “extremely lethargic and to some extent irresponsible” in not dealing with the DOT-111s, said Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner, who, with Barrington Village President Karen Darch, is co-chairman of a coalition of communities pushing for more tank-car safety measures.

“The bureaucracy of it all is literally costing people’s lives, and the potential catastrophe before us, unless something is done, is scary,” Weisner said.

Officials at the NTSB forum called for greater community awareness, enhanced planning and preparedness, and improved training for emergency responders.

“While most fire-service personnel are generally familiar with flammable and combustible liquid emergencies, we know from recent catastrophic events that the amount of product being transported via unit trains exceeds our current response capabilities,” Richard Edinger, vice chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, told the forum.

One strategy would be to establish stockpiles of foam at key locations along rail lines where crude oil and other hazardous materials are shipped. Currently, such supplies are few and far between and would probably arrive too late to quell an inferno, experts say.

Increasing supplies of foam would require fire departments, organizations like MABAS and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency to evaluate their current equipment supplies, officials say.

Although the state agency would coordinate the statewide response to a large-scale emergency, it maintains no inventory or list of foam stockpiles, a spokeswoman said.

The agency, however, is considering the possibility of contracting with foam manufacturers to provide the product on short notice, she said.

Combined with water, foam works by smothering combustible liquid fires, suppressing vapors and cooling the fuel and other surfaces. Applying water alone to a crude oil or ethanol fire will spread the flames.

Generally, only refineries, chemical plants and airports have extensive supplies of firefighting foam and special tanker trucks to spray it quickly, experts say.

The Chicago Fire Department has several crash trucks with foam on hand at O’Hare International and Midway airports. Whether the trucks have sufficient foam to respond to a fiery derailment and could be sent elsewhere in the city or suburbs is unclear.

Despite several requests from the Tribune, the city of Chicago and the Chicago Fire Department did not respond to questions about the city’s foam capability.

Canadian National doesn’t stock foam along its routes, but it is “aware of significant foam locations along (the) system which could be called upon during an incident,” a spokesman said.

As evidenced by Cherry Valley, however, it’s questionable whether those stocks could get to the scene of a crude oil disaster quickly enough.

‘Skin in the game’

One community with a significant store of foam is the village of Bedford Park. Close to Midway, the village is the site of several chemical plants, liquid bulk-storage terminals and a large railroad switching yard.

Chief Sean Maloy said his village is a MABAS division headquarters and is well-equipped and trained to deal with most hazmat situations. It has several hundred gallons of foam — much of it stored on a trailer — that could be offered to other communities in an emergency.

“We’ve got a lot of foam available to us. It’s a matter of getting it there quickly,” he said. “It comes down to how much foam you can bring at one time.”

Some experts and public officials have suggested that companies benefiting from the boom in crude oil such as oil producers, tank-car owners and railroads pay a per-gallon fee to help fund training and programs to prepare for emergencies.

Such a fee was proposed in January by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel before a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington.

On Tuesday, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed a law to collect $2.5 million annually from railroad and oil pipeline companies to help first responders get ready for derailments and spills involving oil and other hazardous substances.

Jay Reardon, the head of Illinois’ MABAS, said that the risk posed by crude oil shipments should prompt local municipal officials to re-evaluate the ability of their fire departments to provide adequate mutual aid responses.

If Illinois were to set such a fee, Reardon said, the money could fund groups like MABAS to stockpile foam and provide additional hazmat training.

“If there are companies who are making money on this, then don’t they have skin in the game?” Reardon asked. “Shouldn’t they be charged a minute portion, and that money go into a pool to fund risk mitigation?”

NRDC sues Koch brothers over handling of petcoke; Chicago adopts new regulations

Repost from The Huffington Post

Koch Brothers Face Lawsuit Over Chicago’s Toxic Black Dust

The Huffington Post  | by  Joseph Erbentraut  |  05/02/2014

Environmentalists are planning to take billionaires Charles and David Koch to court, alleging the brothers’ companies are responsible for polluting Chicago’s Southeast Side with the black, thick dust known as petroleum coke — or petcoke, a byproduct of the oil refining process.

ThinkProgress reported this week that the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Southeast Environmental Task Force (SETF) have given a 90-day notice of an intention to sue Koch-owned companies including KCBX Terminals over the pollution associated with their petcoke storage facilities located along the Calumet River in a low-income, partially industrial Chicago community.

In a press release, the groups said the lawsuit stems from neighbors complaining that the dust spewing from the facilities’ large, uncovered petcoke piles has polluted the river, “invaded” their homes and blackened area skies.

“People are complaining about finding dust from these sites inside their homes,” Peggy Salazar, SETF executive director, said in a statement. “Black dust is coating their houses and probably their lungs. This has to stop. And hopefully this suit will achieve that.”

(Read NRDC’s full notice letter.)

On Wednesday, the Chicago City Council approved regulations that ban new petcoke storage facilities from opening up in the city, but do not require the shutdown of the three sites currently in operation.

The Chicago Tribune reports the storage sites will be newly required to report how much petcoke and coal they ship through the city on a quarterly basis. They will also need to enclose their piles within two years and cannot expand their operations.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office described the ordinance as the toughest petcoke regulations in the nation, but environmental groups pushing for an outright ban disagree.

It is the city’s ultimate obligation to protect its residents,” Salazar said Wednesday, according to the Northwest Indiana Times. “We don’t believe they did that here.”

Most of the petcoke in Chicago is shipped in from the nearby BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana, which is tripling their output of the dangerous dust after expanding their facility. Petcoke can cause health problems like coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, in addition to aggravating existing respiratory conditions like asthma, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Facing similar concerns voiced by residents living near petcoke facilities there, Detroit moved to ban petcoke last year.