Category Archives: Rail crossings

Union Pacific decision imperils sports events in Sacramento CA

Repost from The Sacramento Bee

Texas train tragedy imperils sports events in California’s capital

By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau, 04/17/2015 1:39 PM
Runners wait for the race to begin during the 32nd annual California International Marathon on Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014. Organizers of sports events in California’s capital are concerned that the nation’s largest railroad may not allow participants to cross tracks, forcing them to reroute or cancel more races.
Runners wait for the race to begin during the 32nd annual California International Marathon on Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014. Organizers of sports events in California’s capital are concerned that the nation’s largest railroad may not allow participants to cross tracks, forcing them to reroute or cancel more races. Andrew Seng /

— Every year for a decade, organizers of the Kaiser Permanente Women’s Fitness Festival took care of an important detail without much difficulty: asking Union Pacific Railroad permission for runners to cross its track that bisects the city of Sacramento.

Kim Parrino, the event’s race director, put in the request to the railroad for safe passage for about 4,000 participants in a June 5K and half-marathon back in September.

She got the return call two weeks ago. And for the first time ever, the answer was no.

“It was a very short conversation,” she said.

Parrino was forced to cancel the Women’s Festival half-marathon and reroute the 5K so it doesn’t cross the Union Pacific track.

“We have a beautiful downtown area, and we can’t run through it,” she said. “We’re cut off.”

Organizers of other sports events in California’s capital are concerned that the nation’s largest railroad may give them the same answer, forcing them to reroute or cancel more races. It could threaten the California International Marathon, which brings 14,000 runners and millions of dollars to the Sacramento-area economy, and could affect the ability of the city to host future events.

“The policy shift is something that presents significant challenges,” said Mike Sophia, director of the Sacramento Sports Commission.

Though the railroad won’t elaborate on what prompted its change in policy, Sophia said the difficulties began two years ago, a few months after the fatal collision of a Union Pacific train and a veterans parade float in Midland, Texas, in November 2012.

“I do believe it’s a safety issue,” Sophia said. “That’s understandable.”

That parade’s organizers never told the railroad that their route would cross its track, and a train slammed into a parade float at 60 mph. Four veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were killed, having pushed their spouses out of harm’s way seconds before impact.

Though the National Transportation Safety Board faulted the parade’s organizers and found Union Pacific to be in compliance with federal law, 43 survivors and family members of crash victims sued the railroad. Union Pacific reached a confidential settlement with 26 of them in January. In February, a Texas judge dismissed a lawsuit by the remaining 17.

Aaron Hunt, a spokesman for Union Pacific, said the railroad made decisions about whether to grant safe passage on a case-by-case basis. He offered no specific reasons for the company’s change in policy on safe passage for Sacramento events or who changed it.

“We asked officials to reroute their race due to safety concerns for event participants,” he said.

Rail transportation is federally regulated, giving state and local officials little say over how railroads operate. Railroad rights-of-way are privately owned property, and organizers of events that intersect with railroad tracks are obligated to seek permission to cross.

In addition to safety issues, there are business costs. Idling trains for hours at a time can delay freight shipments. Hunt said that Union Pacific, which has a parallel route that avoids the middle of Sacramento, does not reroute trains for special events.

Last year, the railroad didn’t grant safe passage for the California International Marathon until November, a month before the race.

Rep. Doris Matsui, a Sacramento Democrat, helped resolve last year’s impasse and encouraged the railroad to work with Sacramento to find a safe way to hold events.

“Events such as the Women’s Fitness Festival and the International Marathon are important to our community and our economy,” she said in a statement this week.

The California International Marathon has been run every year for 32 years. The 26-mile race starts in Folsom and proceeds west to the state capitol. But the Union Pacific track presents a barrier. Major east-west streets in Sacramento cross the railroad at ground level, and there are no overpasses or underpasses.

“It’s very hard to do much in the downtown corridor without coming in contact with those tracks,” said Scott Abbott, executive director of the Sacramento Running Association, which founded the International Marathon in 1983.

The race had a close call in 2003, when a train crossed the marathon route during the previously arranged safety window.

“We weren’t prepared for that,” Abbott said.

Last fall, even though organizers of the Mill Race Marathon in Columbus, Ind., made arrangements with a local railroad in advance, a train made an unexpected appearance.

Video footage shows runners scrambling to beat the slow-moving train. When it stopped, some climbed between the cars. The few police officers on hand could do little to stop it.

Just last week, a similar problem beset the Paris-Roubaix bicycle race in France. When the gates came down at a railroad crossing, many competitors darted around them in front of a high-speed passenger train.

No one was injured in these incidents, but the combination of focused athletes and trains that need as much as a mile to stop can lead to tragic consequences.

“A lot can go wrong, even with the proper precautions,” said Steven Schmader, president and CEO of the International Festivals & Events Association, whose group participated in the NTSB investigation of the Texas accident.

According to Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit rail safety education group, California led the nation last year in railroad crossing fatalities involving trains and cars, with 33. More people were killed while walking across or on railroad tracks in California than any other state with 101 deaths and 53 injuries, according to federal statistics.

Abbott said the Sacramento Running Association has rerouted every other event it holds to avoid crossing the railroad tracks, but moving the International Marathon course has too many downsides. Rerouting the race would require adjusting the mileage and could potentially disrupt local traffic and inconvenience participants who are staying in downtown hotels.

“With the numbers of people that we have and the amount of time we impact at the finish area,” he said, “the capitol grounds are really the only acceptable place to finish on a Sunday morning in Sacramento.”

Schmader, whose office, coincidentally, is in the old Union Pacific station in Boise, Idaho, said Sacramento leaders should come together to stress the importance of the marathon.

“Everybody would hate to see a good event go away or changed to its detriment,” he said.

Rail agency’s new head draws kudos, despite string of crashes

Repost from The Boston Globe

Rail agency’s new head draws kudos, despite string of crashes

By Ashley Halsey III, Washington Post, March 22, 2015
Smoke and flames erupted from railroad tank cars loaded with crude oil that derailed March 5 near Galena, Ill.
Smoke and flames erupted from railroad tank cars loaded with crude oil that derailed March 5 near Galena, Ill. Mike Burley / Telegraph Herald via Associated Press

WASHINGTON — After a string of deadly train crashes, a pair of angry US senators stood in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal four months ago to denounce the Federal Railroad Administration as a ‘‘lawless agency, a rogue agency.’’

They said it was too cozy with the railroads it regulates and more interested in ‘‘cutting corners’’ for them than protecting the public.

In the past two months, photos of rail cars strewn akimbo beside tracks have rivaled mountains of snow in Boston for play in newspapers and on television.

But the reaction by Congress to the railroad oversight agency’s performance has been extremely positive recently.

Accolades were directed at its acting head, Sarah Feinberg, even though her two-month tenure in the job has coincided with an astonishing number of high-profile train wrecks:

  • Feb. 3: Six people were killed when a commuter train hit an SUV at a grade crossing in Valhalla, N.Y.
  • Feb. 4: Fourteen tank cars carrying ethanol jumped the tracks north of Dubuque, Iowa, and three burst into flames.
  • Feb. 16: Twenty-eight tank cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire in West Virginia.
  • Feb. 24: A commuter train derailed in Oxnard, Calif., after hitting a tractor-trailer at a grade crossing.
  • March 5: Twenty-one tank cars derailed and leaked crude oil within yards of a tributary of the Mississippi River in Illinois.
  • March 9: The engine and baggage car of an Amtrak train derailed after hitting a tractor-trailer at a grade crossing in North Carolina.

At first glance, Feinberg seems an unlikely choice to replace Joseph Szabo, the career railroad man who resigned after five years in the job. She is 37, a former White House operative, onetime spokeswoman for Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and, most recently, chief of staff to the US Department of Transportation secretary.

Nothing on her résumé says ‘‘railroad.’’

‘‘Sometimes it’s good to have an outside person,’’ said Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, who got a call from Feinberg immediately after the Feb. 3 crash in Valhalla. ‘‘She’s smart, she’s a quick study, she knows how to bring people together. I think she’s the right person for the job.’’

‘‘Whether she’s had a lifetime experience riding the rails or working on the rails, she knows how to get to the crux of things and move things forward,’’ said Senator Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat who arrived at the Feb. 16 crash shortly before Feinberg did. ‘‘I was very impressed.’’

Schumer calls Feinberg ‘‘hard-nosed’’ and says she isn’t worried if she ruffles some in an industry grown accustomed to a more languid pace of change.

After the Valhalla crash, Feinberg pulled together a team to come up with a better way to address an issue that kills hundreds of people at grade crossings each year.

‘‘We’re at a point where about 95 percent of grade-crossing incidents are due to driver or pedestrian error,’’ Feinberg said. ‘‘While I don’t blame the victims, this is a good example of a problem that needs some new thinking.’’

A month later, she called on local law enforcement to show a greater presence at grade crossings and ticket drivers who try to beat the warning lights. Next, the railroad agency says it plans ‘‘to employ smarter uses of technology, increase public awareness of grade crossing safety, and improve signage.’’

‘‘When it comes to the rail industry, that is lightning fast, and it’s really impressive,’’ said a congressional aide who focuses on transportation.

Grade-crossing deaths pale in comparison to the potential catastrophe that Feinberg says keeps her awake at night. ‘‘We’re transporting a highly flammable and volatile crude from the middle of the country, more than 1,000 miles on average, to refineries,’’ she said.

All of the recent crude-oil train derailments happened miles from the nearest town. But little more than a year ago, a CSX train with six crude-oil tank cars derailed on a river bridge in the middle of Philadelphia. And an oil-fueled fireball after a derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in July 2013 left 47 people dead.

The number of tank-car trains has expanded exponentially since the start of a production boom centered in North Dakota. Seven years ago, 9,500 tank cars of Bakken crude traveled by railroad. Last year, the number was 493,126. In 2013, an additional 290,000 cars transported ethanol.

Mindful of the potential for disaster, the White House tasked the Office of Management and Budget and the Transportation Department with figuring out how to safely transport the oil. At DOT, that fell to Feinberg, who had just signed on as chief of staff to Secretary Anthony Foxx.

‘‘We found her to be very hands-on, firm but fair, and ready to work with all stakeholders in making fact-based decisions,’’ said Ed Greenberg of the Association of American Railroads. ‘‘She is someone who has quickly recognized the challenges in moving crude oil by rail. And the freight rail industry is ready to work with her” in her new role at the Federal Railroad Administration, he said.

Minnesota DOT: More Than 300K Live in Evacuation Zones On Oil Train Routes

Repost from The West Central Tribune, Willmar, MN
[Editor: Quote: “‘It is sheer dumb luck’ that no major oil train issues have occurred in Minnesota, Senate Transportation Chairman Scott Dibble said.”  See also this MPR report, which includes a map of major rail lines in Minnesota.  – RS]

326,170 Minnesotans live near oil train tracks

By Don Davis, Forum News Service, March 19, 2015 11:56 a.m.
A pair of locomotives move past a variety of freight and tanker cars on tracks in December in Willmar.

ST. PAUL — State officials estimate that 326,170 Minnesotans live within a half mile of railroad tracks that carry crude oil, a distance often known as the danger zone.

People within a half mile of tracks usually will be evacuated if an oil train could explode or catch fire after a derailment.

The estimate, released this morning after state officials could not answer a Forum News Service question about the issue last week, is the first time Minnesotans had an idea about the number of people that state transportation and public safety officials say could be in danger of oil train explosions like those seen elsewhere in the United States and Canada.

“This data provides a greater emphasis on the need for a strong rail safety program,” Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle said. “If trains derail and an emergency occurs, many lives could be in danger.”

Zelle’s department did not immediately release data showing how many in any specific geographic area live in the danger zone.

State funds were appropriated last year to begin improving firefighter and other public safety workers’ training in dealing with crude oil explosions and spills.

“It is sheer dumb luck” that no major oil train issues have occurred in Minnesota, Senate Transportation Chairman Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, said.

Democrats are pushing for more oil train safety training money this year, as well as railroad crossing improvements, funded by increasing assessment on the state’s largest railroads, taxing more railroad property and borrowing money.

Crude oil trains travel on 700 miles of Minnesota tracks, carrying oil that originates in western North Dakota’s Bakken oilfield. Oil trains are destined for the East and Gulf coasts.

Most oil trains enter Minnesota in Moorhead and travel through the Twin Cities, although some come into Minnesota and head south through the Willmar area.

State transportation officials say each train carries about 3.3 million gallons of oil.

Most of Gov. Mark Dayton’s rail safety plan deals with improving railroad crossings, including adding overpasses and underpasses at crossings in Moorhead, Willmar, Prairie Island Indian Community and Coon Rapids. More than 70 other crossings also would be improved under the Dayton plan.

“Improved crossings will mean fewer chances for train and wheeled vehicles crashes, which will mean less likelihood of derailments,” Zelle said. “If an incident does occur, well-trained emergency personnel will be better able to protect the citizens and communities that lie along rail lines.”

None of the recent oil train explosions have occurred at road crossings. Five oil trains have derailed and caught fire in the past six weeks.

A Quebec train carrying North Dakota crude exploded in 2013, killing 47. A nonfatal derailment and fire near Casselton, N.D., brought the issue closer to home late that year.

The governor also proposes adding an oil train response training facility at the National Guard’s Camp Ripley.

Buffalo’s Bomb Trains

Repost from ArtVoice, Buffalo, NY
[Editor: Professor Niman has written a thorough examination of crude-by-rail issues.  The local (Buffalo NY) perspective is no drawback.  This is an excellent reference article no matter where you are.  For example, if/when Benicia approves a permit for Valero’s proposed Crude By Rail project, everyone uprail from here can expect to be the new Buffalo.  – RS]

Buffalo’s Bomb Trains

By Michael I. Niman, February 26, 2015
With one third of Buffalo’s population living in a disaster evacuation zone, the local media’s silence is deafening.

They span over a mile long containing up to 140 tank cars and as much as 4.5 million gallons of some of the nastiest forms of crude oil on earth, pumped from “extreme” extraction operations in North America’s new oil boomtowns. They cross rivers and transverse open plains, wilderness forest and some of the most densely populated urban areas in the country. Occasionally, with alarmingly increasing frequency, they careen off into rivers, catch fire and explode, or both. When spilled in water, their heavy oil exterminates river ecosystems. When they blow up, they release the fires of hell, with one oil train accident in 2013 wiping out most of the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and gutting its downtown. That’s when folks started referring to these explosive steel snakes as “Bomb Trains.”

This is one of the dark sides of North America’s fossil energy boom—the backstory on cheap fuel. The uptick in oil production comes from using extreme means to recklessly drill oil, using carbon-intensive methods like fracking to extract environmentally dangerous low grade oils such as Bakken crude from Montana and North Dakota. This oil, pumped from the dolomite layer of the Bakken geological formation, which also underlies portions of the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, is more volatile than conventional oils, with a lower flashpoint for explosion. When rail cars started to blow in Lac-Mégantic, The National Post reported a blast radius of over one half mile.

The United States National Transportation Safety Board estimates that about 400,000 barrels a day of this oil make the trip to Atlantic Coast refineries, with 20 to 25 percent moving through the port of Albany. Much of this Albany-bound oil moves across New York utilizing rail lines passing though the hearts of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Utica. Oil from Canada crosses the Niagara river, entering the US both in Niagara Falls, and via Buffalo’s 142 year old International Railroad Bridge, as well as taking a northern route, dropping down from Quebec on tracks passing through the Adirondack Park, including about 100 miles of Lake Champlain watershed shoreline. Non Albany-bound oil, such as some shipments from Buford, North Dakota to Houston, Texas, also take an unlikely route through Buffalo.

Though much of this oil winds up moving through New York State, federal law limits the state’s authority to regulate it. While crude oil can be stabilized to make it less volatile in transit, whether or not it receives such treatment is up to the discretion of regulators in the state that produces it—not necessarily the states through whose cities it will roll. Most of the explosive Bakken crude coming our way originates in North Dakota, where the energy industry all but owns the legislature, fertilizing the state’s anti-regulatory zeitgeist with a healthy dose of cash. The end result is, whatever passes for a state government in North Dakota fails to meet even Texas’s modest safety standards for anti-explosive fuel stabilization.

The Association of American Railroads reports that, thanks to the Bakken and Tar Sands oil booms, the amount of oil moving across the country by train has increased 45 fold (4,500 percent) from 2008 through 2013, with the volume continuing to increase through 2014 and 2015. As a result, more oil spilled from oil trains in the U.S. in 2013 than in the preceding 37 years. The number of accidents increased in 2014, and seems to be steadily increasing this year, with oil trains derailing and blowing up last week in West Virginia and northern Ontario. The Associated Press reports that the U.S. Department of Transportation now predicts an average of ten derailment accidents a year involving crude oil or ethanol tank cars over the next twenty years, “causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.” It’s no longer a matter of “if” there will a catastrophic oil train derailment.

Both the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control, and the United States Department of Transportation recommend evacuating a one half mile perimeter around accidents involving railroad tanker cars carrying flammable liquids. Karen Edelstein, a researcher and the New York Program Director for the FracTracker Alliance, mapped oil train routes across the state, adding overlays for this evacuation zone, and for schools and hospitals. Her data shows that statewide, there are 502 public schools situated within potential evacuation zones. In Buffalo, about one third of the population live within one half mile of these bomb train routes, and 27 public schools and eight private schools lie within potential evacuation perimeters as well. This includes PS 42, which serves students with disabilities, and is located adjacent to the track. Sister’s Hospital and the Buffalo Zoo are well within this perimeter, which skirts the Buffalo State and Erie County Medical Center campuses. If we freak out when it snows, how well are we going to handle what appear to be atomic fireballs, should one of these trains blow up?

While the profits from this oil boom have been privatized, much of the cost associated with reckless extraction have been externalized, meaning dumped on the public. Aside from the obvious environmental costs that we and future generation will have to bear, are the less visible emergency preparation costs that every school, hospital and municipality within a half mile of bomb train routes must now cover. In Buffalo, this means 35 schools need to work with local emergency services providers to develop plans to quickly evacuate students not just from buildings, but from neighborhoods, all with a possible backdrop of explosions, sirens and billowing smoke.

While it’s not statistically likely that a train will explode in Buffalo or any other specific place, it is a certainty that trains will keep exploding with increasing frequency across the U.S. and Canada. This means that cash strapped municipalities across the continent will have to develop plans to address a catastrophe we know for certain will befall some of our communities.

Addressing this risk involves not just planning to respond to it, and maintaining an emergency response network capable of responding, but also working to prevent such a catastrophe. A report from the Cornell University Community and Regional Development Institute points out that this involves a multitude of responsibilities, such as monitoring surface rail crossings to prevent vehicle train collisions that can lead to a derailment. Such responsibility, the report notes, usually falls to local police forces that often lack the personnel to do this. Likewise, federal regulators lack the personnel to inspect the nation’s rail infrastructure, and state Departments of Transportation lack the resources to adequately inspect bridges crossing railroad tracks. All of these costs fall not on the oil or railroad industries, but on government agencies, with much of this work not being done due to budget constraints.

What little planning there is to deal with an oil train explosion is alarming to read. A three car fire requires, according to the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control , 80,000 gallons of water for laying down a fire retardant foam blanket and cooling adjacent rail cars. Hence, the state recommends, if there is “NO life hazard and more than 3 tank cars are involved in fire OFPC recommends LETTING THE FIRE BURN unless the foam and water supply required to control is available” [sic.]. The wording here is ominous, with the availability of the required foam and water not being the default expectation, but instead, simply a possibility. This language is there for a reason, however. The Auburn Citizen, in central New York, quotes Cayuga County Emergency Management Office Director Brian Dahl, who, in response to a question about his county’s ability to respond to an oil train fire, unequivocally states, “The amount of foam and water you would need, there’s just not enough in central New York.”

While oddly inferring that maybe you should put the fire out if you have adequate foam and water, even if there is no “life hazard,” the state’s instructions don’t mention what to do if there is a life hazard, but no foam or water. Also troubling is their inference that if more than three cars are on fire you should just give up. Last week’s fires in Ontario and West Virginia saw seven and fourteen cars ablaze respectively, with each fire burning for over 24 hours. In all caps, the state’s instructions warn responders,

“All resources must be available prior to beginning suppression.”

It doesn’t give any suggestions as to what to do if you can’t move the water to the fire, or have the foam necessary to smother a dragon. None of the suggested responses are tolerable should an oil train explode in an urban environment.

See FracTracker’s map of Buffalo’s evacuation zone:

Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at SUNY Buffalo State. His previous columns are at, archived at, and available globally through syndication.