U.S. oil train rule changes would have side effects on passenger, freight traffic

Repost from The Democrat & Chronicle, Rochester, NY

U.S. oil train rule changes would have side effects

By Brian Tumulty, January 13, 2015
Railroad oil tanker cars parked at the Port of Albany. Each week between 20 and 35 freight trains pulling such tankers roll through Monroe Coundy. (Photo: Mike Groll / AP file photo 2014)

WASHINGTON – Long-distance passenger and freight rail service could be headed for gridlock later this year if trains hauling crude oil and ethanol are limited to 40 miles per hour.

And it could get worse. If the controversial Keystone XL pipeline doesn’t win approval, the American Petroleum Institute estimates “an additional 700,000 barrels per day” will need to be shipped by freight rail. That would require an additional 1,000 rail tank cars every day to transport the tar sands oil the pipeline was intended to carry from Canada to the U.S.

Passengers in the tens of thousands per year travel on trains that stop in Rochester and could potentially be affected by the decisions that will soon be made.

The speed limit, proposed by federal regulators, would cause “severe disruption of freight and passenger rail service across the U.S.,” according to the National Shippers Strategic Transportation Council, a trade group.

The result of the debate will affect both local passengers who use Amtrak — 145,000 people boarded or got off at the Rochester Amtrak station in 2013 — and local activists worried about potential safety issues involving the oil tanker trains that run through Monroe County. Between 20 and 35 oil trains roll across upstate each week, passing through Monroe County on their way to Albany.

The Association of American Railroad says the 40 mph speed limit, and a related proposal requiring freight trains carrying crude oil or ethanol to have electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, “would have a devastating impact on the railroads’ ability to provide their customers with efficient rail transportation.”

Amtrak, which carried 31 million passengers overall in 2013, runs most of its trains on tracks owned by the nation’s major freight railroads. Trains on the Albany-Syracuse-Rochester-Buffalo corridor use a pair of tracks owned by Florida-based CSX Transportation.

Under federal law, freight railroads are required to give priority to Amtrak as they dispatch trains on their systems. But the system has always been imperfect, and scheduling conflicts with freight trains, along with numerous other problems, have made delays a fact of life on most Amtrak routes.

Amtrak supports imposing the 40 mph speed limit only in federally defined “high-threat urban areas” where the risk of a catastrophe is considered greatest. There are just over 50 around the country, including the New York City metro area and Buffalo.

“Anything more restrictive, if it affected network fluidity, could have adverse effects on Amtrak,” the railroad wrote.

The challenge for the oil and gas industry is continuing to safely transport crude oil from new oil fields to refineries.

About 70 percent of crude oil produced in the Bakken Shale Formation of North Dakota and Montana is shipped by rail, according to the oil refineries trade organization.

And production is continuing to increase, from less than 200,000 barrels per day in 2008 to nearly 1.2 million barrels per day in 2014, according to the American Petroleum Institute. Freight railroads predict production eventually will reach 2 million barrels a day.

About 70 percent of ethanol also is transported by rail.

Meanwhile, the nation’s rail network is operating at near capacity. Last year, its choke points resulted in a dramatic drop in the on-time performance of many long-distance Amtrak passenger trains.

Amtrak’s Capitol Limited route between Chicago and Washington had an on-time performance of less than 3 percent in the three months ending Sept. 30. Amtrak provided bus service between Chicago and Toledo, Ohio, for six days in October because some trains were running 10 hours late.

Freight rail shipments from grain elevators faced delays of up to three months a year ago. Freight railroads weren’t prepared for harsh winter weather on top of increased crude oil shipments.

Freight railroads say they’re spending billions of dollars to improve capacity — they largely avoided delays in shipping farm commodities following this year’s harvest — but a 40 mph speed limit for oil trains could undermine that.

“The impact on railroad capacity can be compared to traveling on a two-lane highway,” the Association of American Railroads said. “Slowing down one car or truck affects trailing vehicles. Similarly, slowing down one train affects trailing movements, except that the impact on railroad traffic is much worse because the opportunities to pass are much more constrained than on a highway.”

Trains can pass only at widely spaced locations on a railroad, whether single or double-tracked. Research on rail capacity has shown, and rail operators have long understood, that reducing speeds reduces network capacity.”

At issue is safety in the wake of several derailments of oil trains. The most notable, in the Quebec community of Lac-Mégantic in July 2013, killed 47 people.

Many rail industry groups and shippers say federal efforts to improve the safety of “unit” trains carrying at least 100 tankers loaded with crude oil should focus on fixing faulty tracks. New speed reductions, they say, should be limited to the most densely populated areas.

The National Transportation Safety Board lists improvements in rail tanker car safety as one of its 10 most wanted safety improvements for 2015. It also lists installation of “positive train controls,” which automatically slow trains going into a curve if the operator doesn’t.

“The NTSB does not have a specific position on any specific speed limits but what we do want to make sure first of all is, does the train stay on the track,” said Robert Sumwalt, a member of the NTSB board. “And PTC (positive train controls) is one good way of ensuring that the trains stay on the track. We want to make sure if they do derail, there’s adequate protection in the tank cars. And finally if the tank cars breach, we want to make sure there’s adequate emergency response.”

Federal officials late last year received more than 3,400 public comments on an array of proposals aimed at safer transportation of crude oil by rail. They include a new design for tank cars, retrofitting existing tank cars, installing new braking systems and speed restrictions.

Three possible speed-limit scenarios been proposed — one would limit oil trains to 40 mph at all times. Another would impose the 40 mph limit only when trains pass through regions of at least 100,000 people, and another would impose it only in cities defined as high-threat urban areas.

Trains using a new generation of safer tank cars would be allowed to travel at 50 mph.

The proposed speed limit would apply to “high-hazard flammable trains,” which federal transportation officials would define as any train carrying at least 20 tankers loaded with crude oil or ethanol.

Railroads say 20 cars is too few because freight trains add and subtract cars as they move along the nation’s vast rail network.

The average unit train has 94 tank cars, according to the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers association, which represents the owners of 120 refineries.