Tag Archives: San Rafael CA

Light rail doing fine; not so for bigger trains

Repost from the Redding Record Searchlight
[Editor:  Mr. Elias mentions the Phillips 66 San Luis Obispo oil train proposal but fails to takes note of the Valero Crude By Rail proposal in Benicia.  His argument is magnified by the potential addition of two 50-car oil trains traversing the rails every day in Northern California on their way to and from Benicia.  – RS]

Light rail doing fine but high speed train plan may derail

By Opinion Columnist Thomas Elias, March 21, 6:00 pm

A little more than one month from now, the Metro Expo Line’s final portion will open for business, making it possible to take trains from the far eastern portions of Los Angeles County to the often-crowded beach in Santa Monica. This will come barely two months after a new section of Metro’s Gold Line opened, allowing a simple, cheap 31-mile jaunt from downtown Los Angeles to Azusa.

Meanwhile, in Sonoma and Marin counties, test trains are running on another light rail line, between Santa Rosa and San Rafael, with high hopes of relieving some of the heavy traffic on parallel route U.S. 101.

Barely any protests have afflicted any of these projects, which together will have cost many billions of dollars.

Meanwhile, protests are vocal and persistent wherever the state’s High Speed Rail Authority plans to build bullet train tracks, bridges or stations, even where it plans to share rights-of-way with other trains, as on its planned course on the San Francisco Peninsula.

There’s also massive resistance to a plan for running up to five freight trains weekly through the East Bay area and Monterey County to a Phillips 66 oil refinery in Santa Maria, which supplies much of the Central Coast.

These trains would bring crude oil to the refinery, something Houston-based ConocoPhillips insists is needed because of declines in production of California crude oil. Oil trains would run from the Carquinez Strait near Benicia through much of the East Bay, raising fears of derailments and hazardous waste problems in populous areas. So far this year, there have been at least three derailments of oil trains in other parts of the nation, with hundreds of temporary evacuations resulting. Another train derailed only last month in the East Bay.

Loud as those protests are, they lack the potency of the opposition to the plans of the High Speed Rail Authority, headed by former Pacific Gas & Electric executive Dan Richard, who also spent years as an aide to Gov. Jerry Brown.

The most prominent current anti-HSR push is a proposed November ballot initiative sponsored by Republican state Sen. Bob Huff of San Dimas and state Board of Equalization member George Runner, which seeks to switch almost $10 billion in remaining, unsold, bonds from the bullet train to water projects, including new reservoirs and desalination plants.

That initiative, which appears likely to make the ballot, is in large part the result of the High Speed Rail Authority’s insistence on a route that makes no sense — meandering north from Los Angeles through the Antelope Valley, then west through the Mojave Desert to Bakersfield before turning north again for a run past and through farms and towns in the Central Valley. When it’s done with all that, the bullet train’s projected path would turn west again over the Pacheco Pass to Gilroy and then veer north to San Jose before heading up the Peninsula along existing CalTrain routes to San Francisco.

It’s a convoluted route that — if built out — will add at least half an hour of travel time to a much simpler route that was available: Heading almost straight north from the Bakersfield area along the existing Interstate 5 right-of-way, where plenty of median land is available for most of the run. Rather than cutting over the Pacheco Pass, it would be far simpler to continue a little farther north to the windswept Altamont Pass, where a turn west could quickly lead to a link with the Bay Area Rapid Transit System and special BART express trains to San Francisco.

That route would cost untold billions of dollars less and be far more direct and faster. But the illogical High Speed Rail Authority opted for the least sensible, most costly route, inviting the lawsuits and public outcries that have now set its timetable back by at least three years. The Huff-Runner measure might just make it extinct.

The difference between the fates of the light rail projects and this ultra-heavy rail couldn’t be clearer: Because the light rail systems heeded where potential passengers want to go and chose direct, non-controversial routes, they are being completed on time, or close.

Meanwhile, the bullet train and the old train plans might just pay the price for making little or no sense and/or wasting money: Extinction.


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

Repost from The Washington Times

Rail industry blocking technology to prevent derailments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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