Tag Archives: Risk Assessment

Critics say oil train report underestimates risk

Repost from the Spokane Spokesman-Review
[Editor:  Oh…this sounds SO familiar….  Benicia sends solidarity and support to our friends in Washington state.  – RS]

Critics say oil trains report underestimates risk

By Becky Kramer, December 18, 2015
In this Oct. 1, 2014 file photo, train cars carrying flammable liquids heads west through downtown Spokane, Wash. | Dan Pelle photo

The chance of an oil train derailing and dumping its cargo between Spokane and a new terminal proposed for Vancouver, Washington, is extremely low, according to a risk assessment prepared for state officials.

Such a derailment would probably occur only once every 12 years, and in the most likely scenario, only half a tank car of oil would be spilled, according to the report.

But critics say the risk assessment – which includes work by three Texas consultants who are former BNSF Railway employees and count the railroad as a client – is based on generic accident data, and likely lowballs the risk of a fiery derailment in Spokane and other communities on the trains’ route.

The consultants didn’t use accident data from oil train wrecks when they calculated the low probability of a derailment and spill. The report says that shipping large amounts of oil by rail is such a recent phenomanon that there isn’t enough data to produce a statistically valid risk assessment. Instead, the consultants drew on decades of state and national data about train accidents.

That approach is problematic, said Fred Millar, an expert in hazardous materials shipments.

Probability research is “a shaky science” to begin with, said Millar, who is a consultant for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm opposed to the terminal. “The only way that you can get anything that’s even partly respectable in a quantitative risk assessment is if you have a full set of relevant data.”

To look at accident rates for freight trains, and assume you can draw credible comparisons for oil trains, is “very chancy,” he said. “Unit trains of crude oil are a much different animal…They’re very long and heavy, that makes them hard to handle. They come off the rails.”

And, they’re carrying highly flammable fuel, he said.

Terminal would bring four more oil trains through Spokane daily
The proposed Vancouver Energy terminal would be one of the largest in the nation, accepting about 360,000 barrels of crude oil daily from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields and Alberta’s tar sands. For Spokane and Sandpoint, the terminal would mean four more 100-car oil trains rumbling through town each day – on top of the two or three per day that currently make the trip.

The proposed $210 million terminal is a joint venture between Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies. Oil from rail cars would be unloaded at the terminal and barged down the Columbia River en route to West Coast refineries.

A spill risk assessment was part of the project’s draft environmental impact statement, which was released late last month. A public meeting on the draft EIS takes place Jan. 14 in Spokane Valley. State officials are accepting public comments on the document through Jan. 22.

The spill risk work was done by a New York company – Environmental Research Consulting – and MainLine Management of Texas, whose three employees are former BNSF employees, and whose website lists BNSF Railway as a client. The company has also done work for the Port of Vancouver, where the terminal would be located.

The risk analysis assumes the trains would make a 1,000-mile loop through the state. From Spokane, the mile-long oil trains would head south, following the Columbia River to Vancouver. After the trains unloaded the oil, they would head north, crossing the Cascade Range at Stampede Pass before returning through Spokane with empty cars.

Report used data on hazardous materials spills

Oil train derailments have been responsible for a string of fiery explosions across North America in the past three years – including a 2013 accident that killed 47 people in the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Other oil train derailments have led to evacuations, oil spills into waterways and fires that burned for days.

But since shipping crude oil by train is relatively new, there’s not enough statistical information about oil train accidents to do risk calculations, the consultants said several times in the risk assessment.

Instead, they looked at federal and state data on train derailments and spills of hazardous materials dating back to 1975, determining that the extra oil train traffic between Spokane and Vancouver posed little risk to communities.

Dagmar Schmidt Etkin, president of Environmental Research Consulting, declined to answer questions about the risk assessment. Calls to MainLine Management, which is working under Schmidt Etkin, were not returned.

Stephen Posner, manager for the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Council, which is overseeing the preparation of the environmental impact statement, dismissed questions about potential conflicts of interest.

“There aren’t a lot of people who have the expertise to do this type of analysis,” Posner said.

Schmidt Etkin also worked on a 2014 oil train report to the Washington Legislature, he said. “She’s highly regarded in the field.”

According to her company website, Schmidt Etkin has a doctorate from Harvard in evolutionary biology. The site says she provides spill and risk analysis to government regulators, nonprofits and industry groups. Her client list includes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Coast Guard and the American Petroleum Institute.

Posner reviewed the scope of work outlined for the spill risk analysis.

“We put together the best analysis we could with limited sources of information,” he said. “This is a draft document. We’re looking for input from the public on how we can make it better.”

Spokane ‘a more perilous situation’

The “worst case” scenario developed for the risk assessment has also drawn criticism. The consultants based it on an oil train losing 20,000 barrels of oil during a derailment. The risk assessment indicates that would be an improbable event, occurring only once every 12,000 to 22,000 years.

In fact, twice as much crude oil was released during the 2013 Lac-Megantic accident in Quebec, said Matt Krogh, who works for Forest Ethics in Bellingham, Washington, which also opposes construction of the Vancouver Energy Terminal.

“If I was looking at this as a state regulator, and I saw this was wrong – quite wrong – I would have them go back to the drawing board for all of it,” Krogh said.

Krogh said he’s disappointed that former BNSF employees didn’t use their expertise to provide a more meaningful risk analysis. Instead of looking at national data, they could have addressed specific risks in the Northwest, he said.

Oil trains roll through downtown Spokane on elevated bridges, in close proximity to schools, hospitals, apartments and work places. In recent years, the bridges have seen an increase in both coal and oil train traffic, Krogh said.

“The No. 1 cause of derailments is broken tracks, and the No. 1 cause of broken tracks is axle weight,” he said. “We can talk about national figures, but when you talk about Spokane as a rail funnel for the Northwest, you have a more perilous situation based on the large number of heavy trains.”

Elevated rail bridges pose an added risk for communities, said Millar, the Earthjustice consultant. The Lac-Megantic accident was so deadly because the unmanned train sped downhill and tank cars crashed into each other, he said. Not all of the cars were punctured in the crash, but once the oil started burning, the fire spread, he said.

“If you have elevated tracks and the cars start falling off the tracks, they’re piling on top of each other,” Millar said. “That’s what Spokane has to worry about – the cars setting each other off.”

Governor has the final say

Railroad industry officials say that 99.9 percent of trains carrying hazardous materials reach their destination without releases. According to the risk assessment, BNSF had only three reported train derailments per year in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The railroad has spent millions of dollars upgrading tracks in Washington in recent years, and the tracks get inspected regularly, according to company officials.

Whether the Vancouver Energy Terminal is built is ultimately Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision. After the final environment impact statement is released, the 10-member Energy and Facilities Siting Council will make a recommendation to the governor, who has the final say.

Environmental impact statements lay out the risks of projects, allowing regulators to seek mitigation. So, it’s important that the EIS is accurate, said Krogh, of Forest Ethics.

In Kern County, California, Earthjustice is suing over the environmental impact statement prepared for an oil refinery expansion. According to the lawsuit, the EIS failed to adequately address the risk to communities from increased oil train traffic.

“If you have a risk that’s grossly underestimated, you’ll be making public policy decisions based on flawed data,” Krogh said.

Washington regulator unaware of oil train consultant’s connections

Repost from The Oregonian / OregonLive
[Editor:  The consultant’s connections with BNSF were noted nearly a month ago here and in Curtis Tate’s McClatchy DC report.  On November 24 Tate wrote, “The rail spill analysis portion of the Washington state draft document was written in part by three consultants who are former employees of BNSF and its predecessor, Burlington Northern. In addition to the state agency for which they prepared the analysis, their clients include BNSF and the Port of Vancouver.”  I  understand that the Washington agency that hired the consultant, the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, was asked about the possible conflict of interest in advance of publication of Tate’s article, but they never got back to him.  Staff at the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council should have been aware well in advance of the Oregonian story.  – RS]

Washington regulator unaware of oil train consultant’s connections

By Rob Davis, Dec. 17, 2015, updated Dec.18, 2015 9:44 AM
vancouver oil train
An oil train parked outside Vancouver, Wash., in 2014. A terminal proposed there would bring four oil trains to the city each day. (Rob Davis/Staff)

A consulting firm that helped write a report underestimating the risks of catastrophic spills from a proposed Vancouver oil train terminal has worked for two groups that will gain financially if the project moves forward.

Stephen Posner, the Washington energy regulator who approved the company’s hiring, didn’t know about all those connections until The Oregonian/OregonLive told him. But he did not answer repeated questions about whether he would investigate further.

Three of the four authors who wrote the risk analysis for Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council are former executives of BNSF Railway Co. The railroad would move oil trains to the Vancouver terminal.

The authors’ company, MainLine Management, lists BNSF as a client on its website.

MainLine, which didn’t respond to repeated queries, recently worked for another project supporter: the Port of Vancouver, which owns the land where the terminal would be built.

Much remains unclear about MainLine’s relationships with BNSF and the port. It is not known whether BNSF is a current MainLine client. It’s also unclear whether MainLine’s past work for the port would constitute a conflict.

Washington law prohibits the energy council from hiring consultants with a significant conflict of interest with a project’s applicant or others involved.

MainLine finished its work for the port before it was hired to analyze the terminal. The port awarded a $121,000 contract to MainLine in April 2013 to analyze part of its freight rail system serving the oil train terminal. A port spokeswoman said the final payment was sent to MainLine Sept. 25, 2014, four months before the firm was hired to analyze oil spill risks.

The relationships raise questions about the thoroughness of Washington’s review of the experts it’s using to independently evaluate the Vancouver oil terminal.

The $210 million terminal proposed by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Services is the highest profile project pending before the Washington energy council.

The small agency is designed to be a one-stop permitting shop for major energy projects, studying their impacts and recommending a decision to Gov. Jay Inslee. The governor has final approval.

Posner, the agency’s manager, approved hiring MainLine. He said he was unaware the firm listed BNSF as a client until The Oregonian/OregonLive told him.

But neither Posner nor an agency spokeswoman, Amanda Maxwell, would commit to inquiring further about whether the company has a current connection with BNSF.

Before MainLine was hired, Posner said he discussed the company with Washington’s lead consultant, Cardno. He said his agency relied on Cardno to vet MainLine’s clients and past work.

How did Cardno review MainLine’s potential conflicts? That’s unclear. Posner told The Oregonian/OregonLive to direct that question to Cardno, which didn’t immediately respond.

Cardno has provided written assurance that its subcontractors, including MainLine, are forbidden to discuss the terminal with any outside party, Maxwell said.

“This written assurance provided by Cardno is the basis for trusting in the credibility of the work being performed,” she said.

When we asked Posner whether he was concerned that MainLine could have a conflict, the spokeswoman, Maxwell, interrupted, saying it was inappropriate for him to comment.

“Without having the information, it’s not something he could put in context,” she said.

The agency should have that knowledge and be able to answer such a question, said Robert Stern, a good government advocate who helped write California’s post-Watergate conflict of interest law. He said the energy agency’s review appeared inadequate.

“Maybe they don’t have any conflicts, but how do you know?” Stern said. “There should be something in writing saying we have no conflicts of interest.”

Both BNSF and the Port of Vancouver stand to benefit financially from the project’s construction. The port estimates netting $45 million in lease revenue from the project over 10 years. BNSF has rallied supporters to send comments to the energy council praising the project, saying its construction would strengthen the rail company’s customer base.

Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman, didn’t specifically answer a question about whether MainLine is currently under contract with the railroad.

“BNSF does not discuss specific relationships involving contract companies,” Melonas said by email, “however MainLine Management Inc. has worked with Northwest agencies providing modeling on rail related projects.”

If built, the Vancouver project would be the Pacific Northwest’s largest oil train terminal, capable of unloading 15 million gallons of oil from four trains daily. The oil would be put on barges and sent to coastal refineries.

It has drawn strong opposition from Vancouver elected officials and environmental groups amidst a string of fiery oil train explosions nationwide since 2013.

The report co-authored by MainLine lowballed those risks. It called a 2013 oil train spill in Aliceville, Alabama the worst on record, using it to analyze impacts of a disaster in the Pacific Northwest. The study said a slightly larger spill is “the most credible or realistic” worst-case scenario.

But a far larger spill has already happened. An out-of-control oil train derailed and exploded in Quebec in July 2013, fueling a raging inferno that killed 47 people and leveled part of a small Canadian town.

The analysis incorrectly said the Quebec accident spilled just 36,000 gallons of crude. Far more did. Canadian safety regulators concluded 1.5 million gallons escaped from tank cars. Much of it burned in the resulting fire.

Just a third as much oil spilled in the Alabama accident.

Pennsylvania hires expert to evaluate, advise on oil train risks

Repost from Railway Track & Structures

Pennsylvania hires Zarembski to evaluate, advise on freight system risk mitigation

May 4, 2015

Pennsylvania hires Zarembski to evaluate, advise on freight system risk mitigationThe state of Pennsylvania has hired Dr. Allan M. Zarembski to a three-month contract to assess the state freight system, which hosts 60-70 crude oil trains a week.

Zarembski, who is an internationally recognized expert in the area of railway track and structures, vehicle-track dynamics, failure and risk analysis, safety, railway operations, and maintenance, will evaluate Pennsylvania’s freight rail system and advise Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf on risk reduction and safety. Zarembski will also work to identify areas of high risk and make recommendations for crude-by-rail safety measures, as well as identify ways to implement those measures as efficiently and cost-effective as possible.

“My administration is focused on the safety of Pennsylvanians and protecting people from the potential disaster resulting from Bakken crude oil train derailments,” said Gov. Wolf. “I have expressed grave concern regarding the transportation of crude oil in the commonwealth and have taken several steps to prevent potential disasters. Zarembski is an internationally recognized rail expert and he has extensive experience with rail safety and risk analysis. Pennsylvania sees some of the largest volume of Bakken crude oil transportation by rail in the United States and the potential for disaster is too great to ignore. I will continue to take steps to ensure the safety of Pennsylvania’s citizens.”

A University of Delaware research professor and the director of the railroad engineering and safety program, Zarembski has extensive experience in rail operations, including freight operations, transit, commuter and inter-urban rail. Zarembski has authored or co-authored more than 170 technical papers, more than 120 technical articles and two books “The Art and Science of Rail Grinding” and “Tracking R&D” both published by Simmons Boardman Books.



Academic: Technology can make Crude By Rail safer

Repost from The Conversation US, Boston
[Editor:  On this page I present TWO articles by Bryan W Schlake, Instructor in Rail Transportation Engineering at Penn State Altoona and a former employee of Norfolk Southern Railway.  The first, directly below, explores crude-by-rail risks and seems overly sympathetic to the rail industry.  The second more interesting and informative article, farther below (click here) explores ways to improve crude-by-rail safety.  – RS]

Despite disasters, oil-by-rail transport is getting safer

By Bryan W Schlake, April 14 2015, 5.48am EDT
This derailed oil-carrying train in Ontario in March was the third from a single freight company in a month. Reuters

For many Americans, railroad transportation rarely appears on our mental radar, and when it does, it often comes with a negative context: either we are stopped at a railroad crossing while running late for work or we come across a news article with shocking images of smoke and flames accompanied by reports of exploding tank cars.

Months go by with no thought of railroad transportation, until another derailment occurs, and we again associate trains with fire and danger.

With US crude oil production nearing all-time highs – averaging over 8.5 million barrels per day in 2014 – many are expressing fears about the potential of a crude oil spill in their community. And last week, the National Transportation Safety Board released “urgent” recommendations to promote the safety of shipping crude oil, ethanol and other flammable materials by rail.

What’s behind this rapid rise in oil-by-rail transport? How dangerous is it and can new technology make it safer? To answer these questions, we’ve prepared two articles on transporting oil by rail in the US. The first explores the economic drivers and assesses the rail industry’s record on safety; the second evaluates the technology, research and railroad operating practices that can lead to the greatest level of public good.

By better understanding the underlying issues, we can have a meaningful dialogue and take action towards the common goals of improved safety, security and economic stability.

Economics of oil by rail

Oil production in the US is booming. Last year, for the first time since 1987, annual US field production of crude oil topped three billion barrels, a 170% increase since 2008.

Technological advances such as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and horizontal drilling allowed for increased production, notably in the Bakken formation in North Dakota. But rail has been integral to the domestic oil surge. It was the availability of low-priced, flexible transportation that allowed crude oil to be shipped to US coastal refineries, creating the market for Bakken oil.

As pipelines quickly reached capacity, oil shippers turned to the railroads, which provided multiple incentives, including: flexibility in shipping options and contract timelines, shorter transit times to the refineries (five to seven days by rail compared with 40 days by pipeline), and the ability to choose which refineries to use. While pipelines allow for higher volumes to be transported, the higher speed afforded by rail results in reduced transit time for long distances.

Association of American Railroads, Author provided | Click to enlarge

As a result, Bakken oil production increased from 81,000 barrels per day in 2003 to more than one million barrels by mid-2014, with more than three-quarters of those barrels moving daily out of North Dakota by rail. While carloads of crude oil increased dramatically, on the whole it still comprises a relatively small portion of total railroad shipments – only about 1.6% of all carloads for US Class I railroads.

Because of increased domestic production and increased imports from Canada, 66% of US oil demand is now sourced from North America, a shift that’s lowered imports and will create billions of dollars in economic activity over the next several decades.

Assessing the risk

While there exists no universally accepted definition of risk, it is widely accepted that the risk associated with transportation of hazardous materials must factor in both the probability of a release of the hazardous material as well as the magnitude of the consequences of that release.

Statistically, the probability of an oil train derailment is very low and lower than other forms of transportation (see figure, below). But the potential undesirable consequences are relatively high, including damage to human life, property and the environment.

A worst-case scenario occurred in the Lac-Mégantic accident of 2013 in Canada, which resulted in 47 fatalities, another 2,000 people evacuated from their homes, almost 1.6 million gallons of crude oil released and millions of dollars in property damage.

Author provided | Click to enlarge

Since 2013, three other notable oil train derailments have occurred in Canada, including recent derailments in Ontario, and seven in the US, including the recent derailments in West Virginia in February and Illinois in March. Using data available from the FRA Office of Safety Analysis, here is a summary of statistics for US crude oil train derailments from 2013 to 2014:

  • eight derailments were reported involving a crude oil release
  • two of these derailments resulted in a release exceeding 450,000 gallons
  • two of these derailments resulted in a release between 15,000 and 30,000 gallons
  • the remaining four derailments resulted in a release of 5,000 gallons or less
  • injuries were reported in only two derailments, resulting in four total injuries
  • no fatalities were reported in any derailment
  • people were evacuated in three of these derailments, with the number of people affected ranging from 16 to about 1,000 people
  • track and equipment damage exceeded $1 million for all derailments, with only one derailment resulting in more than $5 million in damages (damage to private property or depreciation of property values not included).

In terms of hazardous materials risk, the consequence to human life was very low in these US incidents, with zero fatalities and only four reported injuries.

Bigger spills

Environmental and economic impacts, however, were substantial. Recent reports have noted that the amount of oil spilled in 2013 alone from train derailments, at more than 1.1 million gallons, was greater than the total amount of oil spilled from 1975 to 2012. As demand for crude oil shipments has increased, railroads have shifted to using “unit trains” in which nearly every car carries oil instead of the variety of railcar types found on a manifest train. For unit oil trains, the only cars that are not tank cars are the “buffer cars”, typically located in the front and rear of the train to provide an added level of safety for the train crew in the event of an accident.

The use of unit oil trains has resulted in larger amounts of oil being spilled in a single derailment. For example, the majority of oil released in 2013 resulted from only two derailments, occurring in Aliceville, Alabama, in November of 2013 and Casselton, North Dakota, in December of 2013. The recent accident in West Virginia on February 16 of this year likely resulted in a release of similar magnitude to the 2013 spills. The accident in Galena, Illinois on March 5th of this year resulted in a spill of over 200,000 gallons of crude oil released from seven tank cars.

Author provided

The other side of the coin for risk assessment is the probability of release, which is extremely low when compared with other transportation modes. In 2013, which was the worst year to-date for oil train derailments, about 28,000 barrels of oil were released from railroad tank cars out of the approximately 300 million barrels of oil delivered by rail.

In other words, less than one hundredth of 1% of the volume of oil transported by rail in 2013 in the US was released into the environment. According to an analysis of US oil spillage, the amount of oil spilled by railroads per billion ton-mile transported declined by approximately 85% throughout the 1990s and 2000s. By comparison, pipelines experienced closer to a 40% decline in oil spilled per billion ton-miles over the same period. While this report does not include the recent increase in unit oil trains, it does provide a valuable comparison across transportation modes.

Due to changes in safety culture and numerous technological advances, railroads have continued to improve safety over the last decade, with accident rates reaching all-time lows in 2014 at only 2.24 train accidents per million train miles. The industry has been clear about its goal to continue to use new technologies and improved operating practices to drive accident rates even lower, asserting that “No accident, big or small, is acceptable.”

In our next piece [below], we’ll look at some technologies that can improve safety.


Repost from The Conversation US, Boston

Shipping oil by rail is booming. Technology can make it safer

By Bryan W Schlake, April 15 2015, 6.18am EDT
The National Transportation Safety Board made an ‘urgent’ recommendation to improve the safety of oil-carrying rail cars. Rick Wilking/Reuters

The Energy Information Administration recently released a map that reflects a massive change to our economy few people appreciate.

The graphic, shown below, shows the latest data on crude oil-by-rail movements around the country and the surge in oil shipments from North Dakota to the different corners of the country. Last year, trains transported more than one million barrels of oil per day in 2014 – a huge jump from 55,000 barrels per day in 2010.

Energy Information Administration | Click to enlarge

This increase in oil-by-rail transportation has come with a number of high-profile derailments, including an accident in Illinois just last month, which have caused substantial economic and environmental damage. Can technology improve safety? Yes. In much the way automobiles are becoming increasingly high-tech, various stakeholders in rail transportation are exploring various technologies to improve safety.

Building a better rail car (and maintaining it)

Railroads have already taken some steps to improve equipment with better braking systems and upgrades to the track infrastructure. New practices can improve safety as well, including better track inspections, speed restrictions for oil trains and choosing routes to reduce exposure to population centers. Railroads have also increased the use of freight car defect detectors installed alongside the the tracks that automatically identify mechanical defects on the railcars based on force, temperature, sound, or visual measurements.

The industry standard needs to be improved, say safety officials, but it’s unclear who will pay for upgrades. Roy Luck, CC BY | Click to enlarge

Many of these technologies are already being implemented by the railroads both to improve safety and to increase economic benefits. In addition to minimizing the safety risk associated with derailments, improved track and vehicle inspection practices help to reduce the potential for delays, which can cost railroads hundreds of dollars per hour.

An economic analysis from 2011 estimated that the annual train delay costs due to railcar defects (resulting in trains stopping unexpectedly enroute) was over US$15 million for all US Class I railroads. For comparison, each year the four largest US Class I railroads spend an average of $35 million on track and equipment damages due to main-line derailments. Thus, the economic drivers behind the reduction of derailments and train delays are quite substantial.

Federal agencies and lawmakers are also working to ensure that federal safety requirements and public policy address the new transportation landscape resulting from the domestic oil boom and increased imports from Canada. The federal government is currently considering new safety standards for improved tank cars specifically designed for the transportation of crude oil.

However, movement towards such legislation has presented considerable challenges due to the fact that the vast majority of tank cars are owned by private companies other than the railroads that transport them.

As a result, questions arise regarding who should bear the economic burden of replacing and/or retrofitting the crude oil tank car fleet. Due to safety and economic incentives mentioned above, some railroads have already begun to purchase their own improved tank cars, but this has not become a universal trend across the industry.

Role of research

Researchers, too, are exploring how technology can improve safety in a variety of ways, including:

Improved Tank Car Design: The Association of American Railroads (AAR) is working to promote tougher federal standards for tank cars carrying crude oil and other hazardous liquids. Extensive research is ongoing both within the Federal Railroad Administration and at various universities to assess tank car safety and develop an optimized tank car design: Cooperative Research in Tank Car Safety Design.

Acoustic bearing detectors, the white-colored machines on either side of the tracks, take sound measurements which allow railroads to predict when railcar roller bearings are beginning to wear out. Bryan Schlake, Author provided | Click to enlarge

Track and Infrastructure Inspection: Railroad track failures have been found to be a leading derailment cause in the US. As a result, railroads have begun to perform more track inspections, including the use of advanced track geometry vehicles – which use laser systems to measure the profile of the rail – on routes carrying crude oil trains. Ultrasonic rail inspection methods as well as ground-penetrating radar systems are also being developed to improve the ability of railroads to detect track defects.

Risk Assessment: Railroad transportation risk research associated with hazardous materials is ongoing. Risk assessment has included rail defect inspection, evaluating routing and train speed, track quality and an integrated framework to reduce risk. This framework addresses operating practices, train routing, infrastructure, and car design to identify the financial and safety risk associated with hazardous materials transport by rail.

Automated Condition Monitoring Technologies: Various wayside detector systems have been developed and installed across the country at locations adjacent to track to assess the condition of locomotive and freight car components enroute. These systems incorporate various technologies to identify critical defects resulting in both safety and economic benefits. Some key technologies include:

  • infrared temperature sensors used to measure overheated wheels/bearings
  • accoustic bearing detectors to identify worn roller bearings in railcars
    High-tech rail: a closer look at an acoustic bearing detector. Bryan Schlake, Author provided | Click to enlarge
  • laser systems to measure wheel profiles and identify worn wheels
  • machine vision systems to detect low air-hoses, structural defects and broken or missing railcar safety appliances
  • load impact sensors to identify damaged wheels that are out-of-round or exhibit flat spots.

Advanced Braking Systems: Both technology and operating practices can play a role in improving braking for oil trains. Some have suggested the use of Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brakes. ECP brakes allow for faster application of the brakes on all cars in a train using an electric signal, instead of an air signal, to initiate a brake application.

ECP brakes have been used on a limited basis for coal trains, but the costs have not been proven to justify the safety and economic benefits. A better option may be the use of either:

  1. distributed power, where locomotives are dispersed throughout the train (i.e. front, rear and even in the center) and/or
  2. two-way end-of-train devices (EOTD) that allow brake signals to be initiated from the rear of the train.

Both of these operating practices result in faster braking and reduce “run-in”, where the cars in the front of the train begin braking before those on the rear, causing the rear cars to “run-into” the cars in front of them, creating higher in-train forces. After these measures were proposed by the US Department of Transportation in July of 2014, US Class I railroads agreed to implement enhanced braking in the form of distributed power or two-way EOTDs on all oil trains.

A derailment in Lynchburg, Virginia in 2014 emptied at least one car’s load of crude into the James River Waterkeeper Alliance Inc., CC BY-NC-ND | Click to enlarge

Positive Train Control (PTC): This technology will automatically slow or stop a train to prevent a collision or derailment due to human error, such as speeding or missing a signal. After a federal mandate in 2008, railroads have begun to develop and install this GPS-based safety overlay system, which will eventually cover more than 60,000 miles of track in the US.

Emergency Response: Railroads are working together with various organizations to improve community safety through emergency response training.

Reducing risk

In addition, new technologies are being developed to improve the speed and effectiveness of environmental cleanup efforts. For example, researchers at Penn State University have developed a patented technology called Petro-SAP to absorb oil from the environment after a spill. Technologies like this can be used in the future to mitigate environmental impact of train related oil spills.

While the risk associated with oil train derailments has not been eliminated, the transportation of crude oil by rail has certainly become safer through extensive research, development and implementation of new technologies.

Continued efforts by railroads, government agencies, research institutions and universities will continue to improve the safety of crude oil transportation by rail, reducing risk and potentially alleviating public fears associated with railroad transportation.