Trains plus crude oil
Mix equals trouble along the tracks

TNS

Jan. 12, 2015

 BNSF crude oil trains pass each other in Galesburg, Ill. on Jan. 4.
TNS


TUSCALOOSA, Ala.  –– Every day, strings of black tank cars filled with crude oil roll slowly across a long wooden railroad bridge over the Black Warrior River.

The 116-year-old bridge is a landmark in this city of 95,000 people, home to the University of Alabama. Residents have proposed and gotten married next to the bridge. Children play under it. During Alabama football season, Crimson Tide fans set up camp in its shadow.

But with some timber pilings so badly rotted that you can stick your hand through them, and a combination of plywood, concrete and plastic pipe employed to patch up others, the bridge shows the limited ability of government and industry to manage the hidden risks of a sudden shift in energy production.

And it shows why communities nationwide are in danger.

“It may not happen today or tomorrow, but one day a town or a city is going to get wiped out,” said Larry Mann, one of the foremost authorities on rail safety, who, as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill in 1970, was the principal author of the Federal Railroad Safety Act.

Almost overnight in 2010, trains began crisscrossing the country carrying an energy bounty that includes millions of gallons of crude oil and ethanol. Tens of thousands of tank cars and a 140,000mile network of rail lines emerged as a practical way to move these commodities. But few thought to step back and take a hard look at the industry’s readiness for the job.

Government and industry are playing catch-up with long-overdue safety improvements, like redesigning tank cars and rebuilding tracks and bridges.

Those efforts in the past year and a half may have saved lives and property in many communities. But they came too late for Lac-Megantic, Quebec, a lakeside resort town just across the Canadian border from Maine. A train derailment there on July 6, 2013, unleashed a torrent of burning crude oil into the town’s center. Forty-seven people were killed.

“Sometimes it takes a disaster to get elected officials and agencies to address problems that were out there,” said Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, a member of the House subcommittee that oversees railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials.

Other subsequent but nonfatal derailments in Aliceville, Alabama, Casselton, North Dakota, and Lynchburg, Virginia, followed a familiar pattern: huge fires and spills, large-scale evacuations and local officials furious that they hadn’t been told beforehand of such shipments.

The U.S. Department of Transportation will issue new rules this month to govern the transportation of flammable liquids by rail.

“Safety is our top priority,” said Kevin Thompson, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration,” both in the rule-making and through other immediate actions we have taken over the last year and a half.”

Nevertheless, there are other gaps in the oversight of transporting oil by rail:


■ The Federal Railroad Administration entrusts bridge inspections to the railroads and doesn’t keep data on their condition, unlike how its sister agency, the Federal Highway Administration, does so for road bridges.

■ Most states don’t employ dedicated railroad-bridge inspectors.

Only California has begun developing a bridge-inspection program.

■ The U.S. Department of Transportation concluded that crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale region posed an elevated risk in rail transport, so regulators required railroads to notify state officials of large shipments of Bakken crude. However, the requirement excluded other kinds of oil shipments by raid, including those from Canada, Texas, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah.

■ While railroads and refiners are reserving the newest, sturdiest tank cars available for Bakken trains, they, too, have ruptured in derailments, and Bakken and other kinds of oil are likely to be moving around the country in a mix of older and newer cars for several more years.


U.S. railroads moved only 9,500 cars of crude oil in 2008 but more than 400,000 in 2013, according to industry figures. In the first seven months of 2014, trains carried 759,000 barrels a day on more than 200,000 cars — 8 percent of the country’s oil production, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

The energy boom, centered on North Dakota’s Bakken region, was made possible by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a horizontal drilling method that unlocks oil and gas trapped in rock formations. It was also made possible by the nation’s extensive rail system.

Crude by rail has become profitable for some of the world’s richest men. Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor, bought BNSF Railway in 2009. It’s since become the nation’s leading hauler of crude oil in trains. Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder and philanthropist, is the largest shareholder in Canadian National, the only rail company that has a direct route from oil-rich western Canada to the refinery-rich Gulf Coast.

Although the price of oil has fallen more than 50 percent since last January and rapidly in recent weeks, crude by rail shows few signs of slowing down. The six largest North American railroads reported hauling a record 38,775 carloads of petroleum in the second week of December.

“We anticipate that crude by rail is going to stay over the long term,” said Kevin Birn, director at IHS Energy, an information and analysis firm and a co-author of a recent analysis of the trend.

Regulatory agencies and the rail industry may not have anticipated the sudden increase in crude oil moving by rail. However, government and industry had long known that most of the tank cars pressed into crude oil service had poor safety records. And after 180 years in business, U.S. railroads knew that track defects were a leading cause of derailments.

Railroads are taking corrective steps, including increased track inspections and reduced train speeds. They have endorsed stronger tank cars and funded more training for first responders.

Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s principal trade group, said railroads began a “top-to-bottom review” of their operations after the Quebec accident.

“Every time there is an incident, the industry learns from what occurred and takes steps to address it through ongoing investments into rail infrastructure, as well as cutting-edge research and development,” he said. “The industry is committed to continuous improvement in actively moving forward at making rail transportation even safer.”