Tag Archives: Philadelphia PA

Firefighter battalion chief: Russian roulette on the railways

Repost from Chico News & Review
[Editor:  This article is well-written and documents gutsy analyses by a regional firefighter and County officials who understand that local safety is at the mercy of federal regulators.  Three years of Russian roulette – and more.  A “must read.”  – RS]

Russian roulette on the railways

Butte County train tracks are Bakken-free for now, but emergency responders fear a return of the volatile fuel
By Evan Tuchinsky, 05.21.15
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Russ Fowler says the Department of Transportation’s new rules regarding traincar safety are insufficient. PHOTO COURTESY OF CAL FIRE

What is ‘Bakken’?

The light crude oil known as Bakken comes from fracking a geologic formation of that name under North Dakota, Montana and Canada. Less dense and with less carbon, light crudes yield more gasoline than heavier crudes, but also are more volatile.

Trains crash. That fact hit home last week when a passenger train derailed in Philadelphia and also last year, on Nov. 26, when a cargo train derailed in the Feather River Canyon.

The risk of devastation multiplies when the derailed train carries volatile crude oil. A recent spate of those accidents has garnered national attention, too, prompting the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) to release new regulations governing the conveyance of flammable liquids. The measures have drawn near-unanimous opposition, though, and done little to assuage lingering local fears.

“My constituents have raised concerns and the Board [of Supervisors] is concerned,” said Butte County Supervisor Maureen Kirk, who represents Chico. “We’re hoping that some of the legislation and some of the discussion that comes forward will make even stiffer requirements on the transport of this Bakken oil.”

The DoT regulations came out May 1. Five days later, another oil train crashed, in North Dakota. By last Friday (May 15), both the petroleum industry and environmentalists had filed legal challenges to the DoT’s so-called “final rule.”

The International Association of Fire Fighters also has voiced objections. Representing more than 300,000 firefighters in North America, the IAFF protested a provision that allows railroads to keep the contents of their trains confidential—under the banner of national security.

Russ Fowler, battalion chief with Cal Fire Butte County and coordinator of the local Interagency Hazardous Materials Team, has additional concerns. DoT regulations phase out tank cars that are not up to the current safety standard, rather than pull them off the rails for retrofitting or retirement. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has argued that the alternative would result in increased oil-tanker traffic on highways.

Fowler says one particular railcar commonly used to carry volatile Bakken crude oil, the DOT-111, “just [wasn’t] designed for that product.” Since railroads have until 2018 to get those cars up to standard, “we have three years of potential Russian roulette on our hands if light crude oil is transported down the Feather River Canyon like it was done last fall.”

Cal Fire has communicated with BNSF Railway, Fowler said, and has been told no crude oil deliveries have come through Butte County this year. “I have no reason not to believe them,” he added, though he’s seen DOT-111s riding on Chico tracks.

Lena Kent, BNSF’s spokeswoman for California, confirmed by email that “we are not currently transporting Bakken crude in your county.” She also wrote: “We do provide information to the Office of Emergency Services in California.”

That’s in contrast with last year, when train cars carrying millions of gallons of the explosive oil, reportedly around one shipment per week, did make their way way along the Feather River Canyon. Experts tie the reduction of imports to a reduced demand for the fuel, a lighter type that’s similar to gasoline and thus extremely volatile.

While Cal Fire dreads the prospect of an urban crash, the Feather River Canyon presents a distinct set of frets.

Train tracks head into remote areas that are difficult for emergency responders to reach. Access roads don’t always run adjacent to the rail route—not even parallel in certain spots. Depending on where a crash occurred, spilled oil could contaminate the Feather River and Lake Oroville—a major source of water for California—or could start a forest fire should it ignite.

Even without a blaze or river release, “it would make an ugly, oily mess in the canyon,” Fowler said. “It would be a terrible environmental disaster.”

Butte County supervisors articulated such concerns to the California Public Utility Commission and the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, before the DoT released its regulations. OES responded by saying the state is investing in “purchasing new Type II hazardous material emergency response units” and in “local training specific to … rail safety incidents.”

For Supervisor Doug Teeter, the board chair who represents the Ridge, that’s little assurance. He has a powerless feeling—believing “it’s just a matter of time” before an accident happens locally, yet knowing “as a county we have no control” over the rails.

“We’re at the mercy of the federal regulators,” he continued. “All we’re really getting is a little response on improved training and equipment. That is not nearly enough to handle a 100-car spill.”

Either in populated or unpopulated areas.

“We as a hazmat team plan for worst-case scenarios,” Fowler said. “Just because you plan for a worst-case scenario doesn’t mean you can mitigate the worst-case scenario, because there are things that can happen that are so catastrophic that it would overwhelm local resources until more regional or statewide resources could come in to help.”

Should legal challenges fail, and in the absence of local authority, a remedy to the DoT regulations remains: Congress. Teeter recently met with a representative of Sen. Barbara Boxer. Meanwhile, North State Congressman John Garamendi has introduced legislation to make light crude safer for rail transport.

Teeter encourages constituents to write congressional representatives and senators. He finds encouragement even in the controversial DoT regulations, which arose amid an uproar.

“Maybe now we’ll have a voice,” Teeter said. “Maybe something can happen.”


Amtrak crash highlights neglect of busy rail corridor

Repost from the Centre Daily Times, State College, PA

Amtrak crash highlights neglect of busy rail corridor

By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau, May 13, 2015
Amtrak Crash
An aerial photo Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Philadelphia, shows the scene after a fatal Amtrak derailment Tuesday night, in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia. PATRICK SEMANSKY — AP

— The derailment of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia this week has renewed attention to the safety and infrastructure challenges facing the nation’s busiest passenger rail corridor.

As investigators began reviewing the data from the locomotive event recorder and collecting other key pieces of evidence to determine the cause of the derailment, information emerged Wednesday that the train had been traveling around a sharp curve at twice the posted speed when it left the tracks.

The accident coincided with a debate in Washington over funding for Amtrak. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee voted to cut Amtrak’s annual subsidy from $1.4 billion to $1.1 billion. Further, Amtrak’s authorizing legislation expired two years ago and hasn’t been renewed.

Congress funds Amtrak from year to year, making it difficult for the railroad to make needed improvements to aging bridges and tunnels and to the systems that power the trains and keep them out of one another’s way.

“Amtrak’s living on a shoestring,” said Steve Ditmeyer, a former associate administrator for research and development at the Federal Railroad Administration. “Some things are falling through the cracks.”

The seven-car train traveling from Washington to New York derailed after 9 p.m. EDT Tuesday in Northeast Philadelphia. Of the 238 passengers and five crew members on board, seven were confirmed dead Wednesday by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.

The fatalities included a U.S. naval midshipman and an employee of The Associated Press. The chief executive of an online startup company was missing.

As seen from TV news footage and pictures posted to social media, pieces of the train were strewed askew the track, which bends in a sharp curve in Northeast Philadelphia. Part of the train overturned, and one car was reduced to a twisted heap of shredded metal.

“It’s a devastating scene,” National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said Wednesday morning.

The NTSB confirmed Wednesday afternoon that the train had approached the location of the accident, Frankford Junction, at more than 100 mph. The speed limit there is 50 mph.

Ditmeyer said a Northeast Corridor improvement project in the late 1970s and early 1980s was supposed to straighten out curves, but that got cut from the budget.

Amtrak’s flagship Acela Express has a top speed of 150 mph but rarely reaches it. Numerous curves, bridges and tunnels restrict the speed of all trains on the Northeast Corridor. The speed limit through two tunnels under Baltimore, built in the 1870s, is 30 mph.

According to a five-year plan for the Northeast Corridor published last month, half the line’s bridges were built between 1900 and 1920, and it would take 300 years to replace them at current funding levels.

“These are ancient things,” Ditmeyer said. “They’re well over a hundred years old. They are decaying.”

The twin tunnels under the Hudson River in New York, built in 1910, sustained heavy flood damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Tens of thousands of commuters depend on them every day, and Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman has said they need to be replaced soon.

“I don’t know if it’s seven (years). I don’t know if it’s four or less,” Boardman said in an interview last year. “We’ve got to do it. The nation has to do it. We have to find the money.”

Amtrak is in the process of installing a collision-avoidance system by year’s end on the Boston-to-Washington Northeast Corridor. The system, called positive train control, is designed to prevent trains from exceeding speed limits as they approach curves.

Ditmeyer said the Northeast Corridor was long ago equipped with a system called automatic train control. While that system prevents trains from running past stop signals, it doesn’t correct for excessive speed ahead of curves.

Congress mandated positive train control in 2008 for much of the nation’s rail network, and some lawmakers are floating a three- to five-year extension for its installation.

Unlike Amtrak’s long-distance trains, which are diesel powered, the Northeast Corridor is electrified. But the system of overhead wires and supports that supplies power to the trains dates to the Great Depression.

Amtrak’s five-year plan for the corridor says 62 percent of the overhead wires and 42 percent of the steel supports need to be replaced.

The plan also notes that the economic cost of losing service on the Northeast Corridor could reach $100 million a day. As of Wednesday afternoon, Amtrak service was still suspended between New York and Philadelphia.

Positive Train Control – background, progress, funding

Repost from the Miami Herald

Rail safety technology improvements delayed by cost, complexity

Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau, May 14, 2015
Emergency personnel work at the scene of the deadly Amtrak train wreck Wednesday in Philadelphia. Federal investigators are trying to determine why the Amtrak train jumped the tracks in a wreck that killed eight people and injured dozens. Patrick Semansky – AP

Most of the nation’s railroads will not meet a Dec. 31 deadline for installing collision-avoidance technology that could have prevented Tuesday’s deadly Amtrak crash in Philadelphia.

Congress in 2008 required that railroads install positive train control by the end of this year, and although the rail industry has made progress on the $9 billion system, equipping 60,000 miles of track and 22,500 locomotives with the technology has proved to be complicated.

The technology has to work across not only the seven largest freight railroads but also 20 commuter railroads, Amtrak and dozens of smaller carriers. It requires 36,000 wireless devices that relay information to train crews and dispatchers from signals and track switches.

It also must work in densely populated regions where multiple rail lines intersect and are heavy with passenger and freight traffic, such as Chicago, Southern California, New York and New Jersey.

“Each of these systems has to be able to talk to each other,” said Ed Hamberger, the president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, an industry group.

Even lawmakers who months ago wanted to hold the industry to the 2015 deadline have softened their position in recognition that the system simply won’t be ready.

Hamberger told reporters Thursday that the industry needs another three years just to get the equipment installed, and two more to make sure it works. Of the 60,000 miles of track where the system is required, he said only 8,200 miles would be ready by year’s end.

A bill approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in March would give railroads until 2020 to complete the task. But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who wrote the legislation that contained the 2015 deadline, said a five-year blanket extension was not the answer.

“In my view, that is an extremely reckless policy,” she said in a statement Thursday. Feinstein has introduced a bill that would extend the deadline on a case-by-case basis.

The technology was not in place at the site of Tuesday’s derailment, on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the busiest passenger railroad in the country. The National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday that positive train control would have prevented Train 188 from approaching a 50 mph curve at more than 106 mph.

Eight people were killed and more than 200 were injured. It was Amtrak’s first fatal accident on the Northeast Corridor since a January 1987 crash that killed 16 people. In that instance, positive train control could have stopped a freight locomotive from running past a stop signal into the path of the Amtrak train.

The NTSB has recommended positive train control for decades. In January, the board included the technology on its “Most Wanted” list of safety improvements. It did not endorse giving railroads an extension beyond December.

Amtrak actually may finish its installation of the system on the entire 457-mile passenger rail corridor between Washington and Boston ahead of most railroads.

“We will complete this by the end of the year,” Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman said Thursday at a news conference in Philadelphia.

The rail industry supports the Senate bill that would give the companies a five-year deadline extension, and even some of the industry’s toughest critics in Congress are prepared to give it more time.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, freight hauler BNSF and Metrolink, a commuter railroad in Southern California, are positioned to meet the original deadline.

An August 2008 collision near Chatsworth, Calif., prompted Congress to pass the Rail Safety Improvement Act requiring positive train control. Twenty-five people were killed when a Metrolink commuter train ran past a stop signal and into the path of a Union Pacific freight. According to the NTSB accident report, the Metrolink engineer, who was among those killed, was texting just before the crash.

Another fatal crash, on New York’s Metro North commuter railroad in December 2013, renewed calls for positive train control. Four people were killed when a New York-bound train jumped the tracks in the Bronx. The train was traveling 80 mph when it hit a 30 mph curve.

Positive train control is designed to prevent a train from running a red signal or approaching a slow curve too fast. Accident investigators don’t yet know why Train 188 was going more than twice the appropriate speed when it derailed in Northeast Philadelphia, but they do know the accident was preventable.

“The Amtrak disaster shows why we must install positive train control technology as soon as possible,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said in a statement Thursday.

One thing Congress did not do when it required railroads to install the system was give them any money to do it. When asked Thursday how much the government had contributed to the freight railroads to assist with positive train control, Hamberger, of the Association of American Railroads, replied, “Zero.”

President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget includes $825 million to help commuter railroads install the technology. The president’s 2009 economic stimulus provided $64 million to Amtrak for its installation. But that wasn’t enough, the railroad said in a report justifying its 2014 budget request.

Overall, Amtrak has spent $110.7 million since 2008 to install positive train control.

“Additional funding to fully comply with PTC requirements is necessary,” Amtrak said.

Richard Harnish, the president of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a group that advocates for passenger rail improvements, said in a statement Thursday that positive train control was delayed because Congress gave railroads an unfunded mandate.

“Congress needs to invest in the safety of our transportation system,” he said.

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