Tag Archives: Philadelphia 188

First National Conference on Oil Train Threats – excellent report by Justin Mikulka

Repost from DeSmogBlog
[Editor:  Many thanks to Justin Mikulka for this excellent report on “Oil Train Response 2015,” nicely summarizing the important issues as well as the event.   Great photo below – click on it to enlarge so you can play Where’s Waldo.  🙂  For a local media report and some good links, see also my earlier posting.  – RS]

“We Need Not Be Polite” Hears First National Conference On Oil Train Threats

By Justin Mikulka • Wednesday, November 25, 2015 – 03:58
oil train conference
Oil Train Response 2015, 1st national conference on oil train threats, 11/14-15/15, Pittsburgh

On November 12th, I boarded a train headed to Pittsburgh, PA to attend the first national independent gathering focused on the topic of oil trains. The trip would take me through Philadelphia where an Amtrak train crashed in May resulting in eight fatalities and over 200 injuries.

There is general consensus that the accident would have been avoided if positive train control technology had been in place. In 2008, Congress mandated that positive train control be installed by the end of 2015. However, the railroads failed to do this and were recently given a three to five year extension by Congress after the rail companies threatened to shut down rail service if the mandate were enforced.

It is a reminder of the power of the rail lobbyists. Another example of this power is currently playing out in Congress. Earlier this year, the Senate voted to raise the amount of money that could go to victims of accidents such as the one in May. However, rail lobbyists and members of Congress are working to strip this change out of pending legislation.

Having covered the topic of oil trains for the past two years, none of this is surprising. The rail and oil lobbyists have been very effective at weakening new oil-by-rail regulations and achieving huge delays for any actual implementation of these changes.

In 2013, an oil train full of Bakken crude oil derailed in Lac-Megantic resulting in a fire that killed 47 people. The existing regulations will allow trains like the one in Lac-Megantic to roll on the rails until 2023.

These known risks and lack of regulations have created new activists across the continent and the Oil Train Response 2015 conference was the first time they have all come together in one place to discuss the issue and organize together. The event was sponsored and organized by The Heinz FoundationFracTracker and ForestEthics.

The first day of the conference was designed to inform the attendees about various aspects of oil-by-rail transportation and included presentations from first responders, politicians, Riverkeepers, legal experts and railroad safety consultant Fred Millar.

What You Are Up Against

Ben Stuckart is president of the Spokane city council, a city currently seeing 15 oil trains a week and facing the potential of as many as 137 a week by 2020 by some estimates. During his presentation, Stuckart described a trip he took to Washington, D.C. to meet with Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to express his concerns about the oil trains.

“We sit down and we’re talking to him and he’s like ‘well here is what you are up against.’ He goes, ‘My first day in office.  BNSF and Union Pacific just showed up and walked into our office.’ And he asked up front what’s going on, I don’t have an appointment. ‘Oh there is an open door policy.’

The railroads have an open door policy. Do you know how long it took for me to get an appointment with transportation secretary Foxx?”

This isn’t the only time Secretary Foxx learned what we “are up against.”

Earlier this year, Reuters reported that when the White House was finalizing the new regulations, Secretary Foxx requested that the regulations address the volatility of Bakken crude oil. His request was denied.

Stuckart’s recounting of Foxx’s candid explanation of the reality of regulation in Washington, D.C. is an excellent example of the power of the industry, and provides insight into why these trains continue to run despite the known risks.

We Need Not Be Polite

Much of the morning session of the first day of the conference was devoted to emergency response, featuring three different presentations on the topic. A bit later, rail safety consultant Fred Millar took to the podium and wasted no time in getting everyone’s attention. With the earlier emergency response presenters flanking him on either side of the podium, Millar did not pull any punches.

“We need not be polite with the railroads and first responders,” Millar said. And then he proceeded to point out what a farce the idea of emergency response planning is regarding Bakken oil trains.

“It’s a lie,” Millar said as he showed a slide of emergency responders operating fire hoses standing very near a black rail tank car that was on fire. Millar noted that these are public relations efforts meant to calm the public, but the reality of a Bakken oil train accident is that everyone within a half mile is evacuated and the train is allowed to burn itself out because it is too dangerous for first responders to approach. Often the fires last for days.

Millar’s presentation was enthusiastically received by the conference audience. As he delivered one of his many hard-hitting lines to applause, an audience member could be heard saying, “He’s like a preacher up there!” However, as repeatedly noted in his presentation, his opinion is that very little is being done to address the risks of oil-by-rail transportation.

They Are Our Children

Things got a bit heated in the question and answer session following Millar’s presentation. One point of contention was that the first responders maintained that they need to keep information about oil trains secret so as to not help out “the bad guys” — an idea not well received by the many people in the audience living near oil train tracks.

Raymond DeMichiei, Pittsburgh’s Deputy Coordinator of Emergency Management, sparked the biggest outcry when he stated that he didn’t see why “people need to know how many daycare centers are within the blast zone.” Among the responses was a woman yelling, “They are our children!”

As the session came to a close, a frustrated DeMichiei said, “Get ’em off the rails. I’ll be a happy guy.”  It was one point that everyone in the room could agree on.

FRA Administrator Grateful For Luck

A week before the conference, an ethanol train derailed in Wisconsin and spilled ethanol into the Mississippi River. The next day, an oil train derailed and spilled oil in a residential neighborhood in Wisconsin. On the first day of the conference, news broke that an oil train derailed near Philadelphia, although there was no spill.

Sarah Feinberg, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, commented on the accidents in Wisconsin saying, “We feel we got really lucky.” When I pointed out on Twitter that luck is currently a big part of the oil train safety plan, she responded.

While it is true that regulators are taking many steps to improve safety, it is also true that the oil and rail industries are working hard against any real improvements to safety. The dangerous oil is not being stabilized. The unsafe tank cars will be on the rails for at least eight more years. Modernized braking systems are years away and the industry is fighting that as well. And trains continue to run through many large cities.

On my train ride home from the conference, I saw many of the signature black tank cars on the rails. Some were carrying liquid petroleum gas, some ethanol and at least one was a unit train of oil cars (although likely empty as it was traveling West). The potential of an accident involving a commuter train and an oil train didn’t seem far fetched.

View from Amtrak train, photo by Justin Mikulka.

A National Movement Begins

The people gathered in Pittsburgh don’t want to rely on luck to protect their communities. They are committed to fighting for real rail safety, and they were clearly energized by this event. As Ben Stuckart said, “This is so awesome. I haven’t seen this big of a group about this very specific issue since I’ve been working on it the last four years.”

And that is good news for the 25 million people currently living within bomb train blast zones. Because if there is one lesson learned from the long delay over the implementation of positive train control, it is that this battle is likely to be a long and difficult effort.

Blog image credit: Paul Anderson

Deadline for train safety technology undercut by industry lobbying

Repost from the Washington Post

Deadline for train safety technology undercut by industry lobbying

By Ashley Halsey III and Michael Laris October 25 at 10:13 PM

Until a train barreled off the tracks at 9:26 p.m. on May 12, it had been business as usual on Capitol Hill. Among the bills quietly making their way toward a final vote was one that would postpone by several years a multibillion- dollar safety-enhancement deadline facing the railroad industry.

A victory for the railroads, which maintain one of the most powerful lobbying efforts in Washington, seemed all but certain and likely to be little noticed outside of the industry.

But at that moment, an Amtrak train hurtling toward New York City derailed in Philadelphia, turning into a tangle of crushed metal that killed eight passengers and injured 200 more.

Everyone — including the railroad and federal investigators — agreed that the catastrophe could have been prevented by a single innovation called Positive Train Control (PTC). It’s an automatic braking system that federal regulators call “the single-most important rail safety development in more than a century.”

Now, after a period of reflection and several inquiries, Congress once more is on the brink of postponing the deadline for use of PTC. The proposed delay — until at least 2018 — comes in a new regulatory era for the railroads. Trains filled with volatile natural gas or oil have derailed seven times so far this year, and there is fear that one could cause catastrophic explosions as it passes through a city.

A mighty lobby

What has taken place since May provides insight into the influence that effective lobbyists wield in Washington and how ready access to members of Congress has helped one industry fend off a costly safety mandate.

Seven years ago, Congress ordered railroads to have PTC installed by the end of 2015. It was an uncomfortable deadline for the industry, one it argued should be postponed. PTC technology was too complex, the railroads said, and the $14.7 billion cost to equip freight and commuter lines was prohibitive. Federal economists put the cost-benefit ratio at about 20 to 1.

With their lobbyists in overdrive in 2008, the railroads might have persuaded Congress to delay the mandate. But in the middle of that debate, a head-on train collision in California killed 25 people and injured 102 others. The National Transportation Safety Board said PTC could have prevented the accident, and that moved lawmakers to settle on the Dec. 31, 2015, deadline.

The NTSB says it has investigated 145 rail accidents since 1969 that PTC could have prevented, with a toll of 288 people killed and 6,574 people injured.

In the years since Congress moved to finalize the deadline in 2008, the railroad industry has spent $316 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), to maintain one of the most savvy lobbying teams in Washington. It also contributed more than $24 million during the same period to the reelection efforts of members of Congress, targeting in particular the chairmen and members of key committees that govern its business.

In 2011, the chairman of the House subcommittee on railroads spoke out at a hearing, denouncing the PTC mandate as “an example of regulatory overreach.” He said PTC would have “a very, very small cost-benefit ratio.”

Since then, that chairman, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), has risen to lead the full House Transportation Committee. Late last month, he introduced a bipartisan bill to extend the PTC deadline to at least 2018, and beyond if the “railroads demonstrate they are facing continued difficulties.”

“Railroads must implement this important but complicated safety technology in a responsible manner, and we need to give them the necessary time to do so,” Shuster said in a statement announcing the bill.

Since taking office in 2001, Shuster has received campaign contributions of $446,079 from the railroad industry, according to the CRP, with $141,484 of it coming in the 2013-2014 election cycle.

Money flows readily to the chairs of powerful committees, but other members of the House Transportation Committee also have benefited from railroad contributions. In the 2013-2014 election cycle, committee members received more than $1.25 million in direct contributions to their campaigns. As of the end of September, the railroads had pitched another $721,742 at the House committee members.

The Senate also has benefited from the railroad industry’s largesse, according to the CRP, with 77 senators receiving nearly $1.5 million in campaign contributions in 2013-2014.

Outside the Beltway, massive contributions may sound like the cost to buy a vote in Congress. But in this era of mega-money politics, campaign contributions win something almost as valuable for railroad lobbyists: face time with a member of the House or Senate.

“They call and they get a member meeting right away,” said a senior Senate staff member familiar with the process. “They have a lot of access.”

And that access brings into play what are described as some of the best lobbyists on Capitol Hill, including several dozen who once were staff members or lawmakers in Congress.

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee and the recipient of more than $70,000 in railroad campaign money since 2013, says it’s the footwork of the lobbyists, not the campaign contributions, that wins the day.

“In these days, when you have one Wall Street billionaire spend a million bucks [on a campaign], getting a few thousand dollars from a railroad?” he said with a shrug. “The railroads invest a lot of time on the Hill, and they present a pretty good story for the most part.”

Oil boom raises the stakes

Rail safety has never been a more pressing issue than it is today. So far, the people who have died in U.S. accidents that PTC could have prevented have generally been crew members or passengers. That could change in dramatic, catastrophic fashion.

The number of rail tank cars carrying flammable material in the United States has grown from 9,500 seven years ago to 493,126 last year, thanks to the boom in domestic oil produced in the Bakken oil fields.

Those trains rumble from the oil fields in Montana, North Dakota and Saskatchewan, Canada, to refineries on the East, West and Gulf coasts.

This year, seven trains have derailed, either leaking their contents or exploding. All of the U.S. explosions have come in remote rural areas where the erupting fireballs did little damage.

Canada was not so lucky.

In July 2013, a runaway freight train carrying 74 tank cars full of Bakken oil derailed in the town of Lac-Mégantic, setting off an inferno that destroyed 30 downtown buildings and killed 47 people.

Coastal states in the United States and the city of Chicago, the most important railroad hub in the nation, have come up with scenarios that depict the potential damage and death tolls should a train explode in different sections of their urban areas. Chicago, fearing that the plan’s release could cause panic, has declined to make it public.

Sarah Feinberg, acting head of the Federal Railroad Administration, says that worries of a train exploding in the middle of a city have caused her sleepless nights.

“If PTC is not fully implemented by Jan. 1, 2016, we can and should expect there to be accidents in the months and years to follow that PTC could have prevented,” she told the House subcommittee on railroads in June.

Bob Gildersleeve Sr., whose son Bob, a Maryland father of two, was killed in the May crash, said rail companies seem to be evading the mandate with an attitude of: “What are you going to do about it?”

“Is a deadline a deadline?” Gildersleeve asked. “We’re talking about fixing things that will eventually save lives, and you guys haven’t done it. Why?”

Many railroads far behind

The railroads’ pitch for an extension — both loudly in the media and quietly to Congress — has been straightforward. Unless the deadline is postponed:

“Transportation of all goods over freight rail grinds to a halt; the U.S. economy loses $30 billion; household incomes drop by $17 billion; 700,000 Americans lose their jobs; millions of commuters are stranded.”

That was the message Oct. 19 when officials from three commuter rail lines and Association of American Railroads President Ed Hamberger held a conference call with reporters to add their voices to a chorus calling for an extension of the PTC deadline.

“If the congressionally mandated deadline of Dec. 31 is not extended, there will be a transportation crisis in the country with severe economic consequences,” said Michael Melaniphy, president of the American Public Transportation Association.

The call had an unintended subtext; all three of the commuter rail lines represented — Virginia Railway Express, Chicago’s Metra system and California’s San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission — said their installation of PTC would be substantially complete by the end of 2015. Amtrak also promises to have PTC operating in the Northeast Corridor rails that it owns by the current deadline.

But most passenger trains operate on track that’s owned by the freight railroads, and the freight rail lines are far from ready to meet the deadline. The freight companies say that without an extension, all traffic on their lines must halt to comply with the law.

The railroads say they’ve already spent $5.7 billion on PTC installation and are committed to finishing the job. None will meet the Dec. 31 deadline.

“It doesn’t matter how fast the bear is that’s chasing you, if you’re running as fast as you can, you can’t run any faster,” said Frank Lonegro, vice president of the freight rail carrier CSX, which operates more than 21,000 miles of rail in 23 eastern states, Washington and two Canadian provinces.

Some of the big railroads have made progress, while others lag far behind.

One of the largest, the BNSF Railway, has made substantial progress. At the other end of the spectrum, Union Pacific hasn’t fully equipped any of its 6,532 locomotives, according to a Federal Railroad Administration report released in August.

“Union Pacific is pretending [the deadline] is not happening,” said one federal official who reviewed the report.

Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt says that “integrating these technologies into an interoperable system is very difficult,” much like merging medical records into a computerized system, and that the company already has made a $1.7 billion investment, including work on the bulk of its locomotives.

Lonegro’s colleague, CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle, said railroad lobbyists have been telling Congress for years that a 2015 deadline wasn’t realistic.

“In the early conversations, before the law was passed, the industry was identifying 2018 as a reasonable deadline that we thought we could achieve,” he said.

A federal official familiar with those 2008 negotiations offered a different perspective.

“The railroads were in the room, and [Association of American Railroads] and those guys were the ones who said 2015 was doable. They did not embrace the deadline, but they said it was a fair bill,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of involvement in the current negotiations.

“It certainly wasn’t, ‘Oh, we sprung it on the railroads at the last minute,’ as they would like some to believe,” said a staff member who was in the room while the deal was being struck.

When the final regulations were put in place nearly six years ago, federal officials tallied up the expected benefits of having the automatic braking system in place. The cost-benefit analysis put a price tag on crumpled locomotives, train delays, track damage, evacuation costs, the cleanup of hazardous spills and other consequences of the crashes that could be prevented.

Government economists also sought to calculate the human costs in injuries and deaths, using a figure of $6 million for each life that was expected to be saved. Over 20 years, there would be $269 million in savings, they figured, or the equivalent of 45 lives spared. There would be another $200 million in prevented injury costs.

In all, they projected $674 million in safety benefits from the PTC system. It would cost $13.2 billion over 20 years, including maintenance costs, to net those benefits, the economists calculated.

That came out to a cost-benefit ratio of about 20 to 1, a disconnect seized on by railroad executives, lobbyists and lawmakers sympathetic to their needs, such as Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.).

“Now, everybody has tremendous sympathy for those families that lost loved ones in the Amtrak accident, but my goodness, now we’re going to be spending billions to make something that already is one of the safest things in the entire world [safer]?” Duncan, who has received $303,250 in railroad campaign support during a 27-year career in the House, said at a June hearing. “And I’m thinking that we would be better off to spend those billions in many, many other ways — cancer research, and everything else.”

But federal rail officials and some outside experts argue that the technology needed to prevent crashes ultimately can transform the future of railroading. More frequent trains, more efficiently deployed across the country, could move more goods while cutting down on expensive fuel costs, dramatically increasing potential benefits.

Some industry executives have embraced this future, while others have pushed back. In a conference call with Wall Street analysts just 19 days before the Amtrak derailment, Union Pacific’s president and chief executive, Lance M. Fritz, predicted Congress would extend the deadline, adding that his company’s lobbyists were “giving feedback and input into our thoughts to help navigate that process.”

Dan Keating contributed to this report.

After Passenger Train Derailment in Philadelphia Kills At Least 7, Attention Turns to Oil-by-Rail Hazards

Repost from DeSmogBlog
[Editor:  As of Thursday evening 5/14, the death toll was increased to eight.  – RS]

After Passenger Train Derailment in Philadelphia Kills At Least 7, Attention Turns to Oil-by-Rail Hazards

This morning, investigators continue to search for missing Amtrak passengers, possibly thrown from a major train derailment and wreck in northeast Philadelphia Tuesday night. Already the casualty toll is one of the worst in recent memory, with at least seven people dead and over 200 injured after Amtrak’s Northeast Regional Train No. 188, carrying 258 passengers, derailed.

“I’ve never seen anything so devastating,” Philadelphia Fire Department Deputy Commissioner Jesse Wilson told NBC News yesterday.

For some of those living nearby, the Amtrak collision was also a grim reminder of another – even more dangerous – hazard on the rails.

“I feel lucky that wasn’t an oil train last night,” Joseph Godfrey, a retiree who lives two blocks from the crash site, told CNBC.

Between 45 and 80 oil trains – each a chain of tankers that can stretch over a mile long – roll through Philadelphia’s densely populated neighborhoods every week, mostly heading to a South Philadelphia refinery that is the nation’s biggest single consumer of the notoriously explosive crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale. More than 400,000 Philadelphians, and an additional 300,000 in neighboring suburbs, live within a half-mile of tracks traveled by oil trains – and a half-mile represents the evacuation zone for an oil train derailment, according to federal regulators.

Alll told, over 25 million Americans nationwide live within a half-mile of oil train tracks, one 2014 analysis found.

Locals say that tanker cars carrying oil traverse the section of tracks where the Amtrak wreck occurred daily. The Amtrak train was travelling along the Northeast Corridor, where passenger trains often share the same rails as oil trains. At the site of the derailment, oil trains run on tracks parallel to Amtrak’s rails – and in fact, the Amtrak train may have come perilously close to striking oil tankers.

Photos from the time of the accident posted on Twitter appear to show the Amtrak train came within feet of tanker cars that were stopped on tracks parallel to the passenger rails.

“It missed that parked tanker by maybe 50 yards,” Scott Lauman, who lives near the wreck site, told CBS. “An Amtrak guy came by and he was telling me it turns out those tankers are full, and if that engine would’ve hit that tanker, it would’ve set off an explosion like no other.”

Robert Sumwalt, an official representing the National Transportation Safety Board, told reporters at a Wednesday press conference the agency was told the tankers were not completely full, but did not say whether that meant they carried no crude oil or whether they were only partially full. He added that he had not verified independently how full the cars were.

The issue drew the attention of the state’s top executive, as he visited the derailment site yesterday. Pennsylvania’s Governor Tom Wolf called the nearby tanker cars “a cause of additional concern.”

And oil train activists say that the Amtrak crash could potentially have been avoided if federal regulations requiring automated speed controls had gone into effect earlier – but instead, the federal government has allowed train companies to delay installing those controls.

Just one day after Tuesday’s wreck, the American Petroleum Institute filed a lawsuit challenging new federal safety standards for oil trains.

Although investigators are still combing through the wreckage looking for a full explanation of the cause of the wreck, speed seems to have been a major factor in the disaster. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the Amtrak train that derailed was going 106 miles per hour, twice the speed limit, as it made its way around a curve that was the site of one of the deadliest railway accidents in U.S. history, a September 6, 1943 passenger train crash that killed 79 and injured 117.

The Amtrak train was equipped with Positive Train Control (PTC) equipment, that would use GPS data to automatically slow trains going over federal speed limits, but the section of track where the derailment occurred had not yet been upgraded to allow the PTC technology to work.

“A faster pace to implement federal rules requiring Positive Train Control systems on Class 1 tracks with commuter trains and high volumes of freight might have made the difference in this accident,” Matt Krogh, director of the Extreme Oil Campaign at ForestEthics, told DeSmog.

Already in Philadelphia, where a refinery surrounded by residential neighborhoods is the nation’s top destination for notoriously explosive Bakken crude, oil trains have derailed twice since January 2014. In one incident, cars filled with oil derailed on a bridge and dangled over the Schuylkill river and prompted the shutdown of a nearby expressway.

“The rapid rise of oil trains in Philadelphia and nationally parallels the rise in accidents and near misses,” Mr. Krogh told DeSmog.

“So far we’ve been lucky, but it’s just a matter of time until a major derailment happens in an urban center like Philadelphia.”

Flying Manhole Covers, Toxic Clouds

Suppose the Amtrak train that derailed had carried flammable material instead of passengers, and that flammable material ignited. An oil train explosion involves a series of escalating disasters, each posing unique dangers, particularly in urban environments.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the potential impact zone of an oil train explosion includes a one mile radius around the blast site.

Around 47,000 people live within a one-mile radius of Amtrak 188’s derailment, according to five-year estimates from the 2013 American Communities Survey.

A few blocks to the northwest is Holy Innocents Area Catholic Elementary School, which reports an enrollment of 287. A few blocks further north and toward Frankford Ave. is St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

Map Credit: Jack Grauer, Spirit News

Let’s say there was [hazardous material] in those rail cars,” Jim Blaze, an economist and railroad consultant told NPR.   “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?”

The recent string of oil train derailments and fires – the Feb. 17 derailment in West Virginia , the March 9 derailment in Gogama, Ontario, the May 6 derailment in the 20-person town of Heimdal North Dakota – have occurred in rural areas, away not only from dense population centers but also from the infrastructure that undergirds cities and towns.

Because of the labyrinth of sewer systems and underground utility tunnels – not to mention other industrial sites – oil train explosions in a major US city would pose unique hazards. First responders would likely contend with a broad array of surprising dangers.

For example, in the 2013 oil train explosion in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, population 2,000, hazards were not limited to the fireball. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of Bakken crude oil – described not like the tar balls that washed onshore following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, but as slightly less watery than vegetable oil – spilled through the streets and down into sewers.

Explosions from the fumes that built up in those tunnels blew manholes over 30 feet into the air, investigators found. Burning oil melted streetlamps, flowed into rivers and lakes, and soaked deep into the ground after it poured from the train.

Toxic clouds from the fumes also kept first responders at bay, limiting their ability to approach the wreck initially and then also keeping them from areas close to the crash site for days.

And then there’s the train car explosion itself – not only involving the burning of the 30,000 gallons of oil carried in each DOT-111 tanker car, but also what fire engineers call a BLEVE, standing for a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion. As liquids in a metal tank boil, gasses build up, pressurizing the tank even despite relief valves designed to vent fumes. Tanks finally explode, throwing shrapnel great distances, and spitting out burning liquids that can start secondary blazes.

In the Lac Megantic disaster, 30 buildings were leveled by the blast, and officials said they believed some of the missing could have been vaporized in the explosions and fires. Hospital officials reported that emergency rooms were eerily empty following the blast. “You have to understand: there are no wounded,” one Red Cross volunteer told the local press at the time. “They’re all dead.”

In light of these hazards and many others – the risk of a domino-like series of subsequent disasters and spills if an explosion occurred in an industrial area – emergency planners often focus on evacuation.

Philadelphia’s emergency response plans in the event of a derailment and explosion have not been made public, local activist groups complain, prompting fears that the plans may not be sufficiently detailed.

‘No Traffic Cops’

Meanwhile, an increasing amount of oil is moving by train through one of America’s largest cities, as Philadelphia Energy Solutions purchased an old Sunoco refinery – first established in 1866, long before regulations made it nearly impossible to build new refineries in urban centers – and added the East Coast’s largest railcar unloading facility.

“We’re now the single largest buyer of crude from the Bakken in North Dakota,” Philip Rinaldi, the refinery’s chief executive, told a Drexel University conference last December. “We bring in nearly six miles of train a day for unloading at our facility.”

Unlike passenger trains, heavy axel trains like oil trains can cause rails to flex ever so slightly – prompting concerns that rails used by both oil trains and passenger trails could be at greater risk of broken welds or rails.

And damaged welds and rails are the number one cause of train derailments nationwide, Federal Railroad Administration data shows, responsible for rought 40 percent of overall derailments. This means that the sharp increase in oil train traffic could make it more likely that passenger trains using the same rails could crash.

Oil trains travel on parallel rails on the section of track where Amtrak 188 crashed – but over Amtrak’s entire Northeast Corridor, the nation’s most heavily traveled passenger railways, oil trains at times travel on the same rails as passenger trains.

With risks like these in mind, Philadelphia’s railroad unions called for tougher rules in April.

“The industry arrogantly claims they cannot afford to maintain the tracks to a higher safety standard,” Freddie N. Simpson, president of the Maintenance of Way Brotherhood, which represents workers who inspect and maintain railroads, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “My question to the nation is, Can we afford for them not to?”

Trains are generally required to run at slower speeds on tracks that are less frequently inspected.

But oil train activists point out that speed limit enforcement is left up to railroad companies themselves, meaning that there is no available data on how often trains exceed speed limits.

“There’s no tracking or recording,” Mr. Krogh told DeSmog, “there are no traffic cops on the rails.”

Public officials say that efforts to regulate oil trains locally to prevent explosions are hamstrung by the fact that train regulation up to the federal government. Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution in March urging the federal government to enact new rules – but can do little otherwise, local politicians say.

“It is very frustrating, because on a local level we have very limited powers to regulate the railways,”City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson told the Philadelphia Inquirer in February. “The federal government needs to step up. The Department of Transportation needs to do more to hold these railroads more accountable.”

Photo Credit: Joshua Albert, Spirit News