Federal Railroad Administration

“We Got Lucky” - Four Years After Lac-Megantic, Another Oil Train Accident

We were very lucky in this instance,” Plainfield Fire Chief David Riddle said. “There was no fire, nobody got hurt by the grace of God.”

As the residents of Lac-Megantic were preparing to acknowledge the 4th anniversary of the oil train disaster that leveled and poisoned their downtown and killed 47 people, residents of Plainfield, Illinois were happy to just be complaining about the odor of spilled oil after a train pulling 115 tank cars of Canadian crude oil derailed near their neighborhood.

Secretly Approved in Alaska, Will LNG Trains Soon Appear in Rest of US?

Alaska Railroad train crossing a bridge in Alaska

In 2015, a federal rail agency authorized the Alaska Railroad Corporation to ship its first batch of liquefied natural gas (LNG) by rail in Alaska, but granted this permission behind closed doors, according to documents obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and provided to DeSmog.

The documents, a series of letters and legal memoranda obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), show that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) may have violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by permitting the shipping of LNG, a highly combustible and flammable material, via rail without any public notification or comment period. The agency granted the Alaska Railroad Corporation a legal exemption under 49 C.F.R. § 174.63(a).

Are Oil Trains Just Too Heavy? No Regulations, No Weigh To Know

The cause of the most recent bomb train derailment and fire in Mosier, OR has been determined to be lag bolts that had sheared off resulting in the derailment. This once again raises concerns that the unit trains of oil are putting too much stress on the tracks due to their excessive weight and length. 

There is precedent for this issue according to rail consultant and former industry official Steven Ditmeyer. In the early 1990s, there was a similar problem with some double stacked container cars being too heavy for the infrastructure — because of overloaded containers — resulting in sheared rail spikes.

This sounds like a very similar circumstance to what was happening in the early 1990s with overloaded double stack container cars,” Ditmeyer told DeSmog.

So, since double stacked containers are currently in wide use but there are no longer derailment issues like in the 1990s, what changed?

Luck Rides The Rails: Another Near Miss with an "Insane" Bakken Oil Bomb Train

Luck was in abundance on Friday in Mosier, Oregon where the latest Bakken oil train derailed and erupted into flames near a 50-home residential area and a school. 

As Mosier Fire Chief Jim Appleton said, “Mosier really dodged a bullet in the last 24 hours.”

“I hope that this becomes death knell for this mode of shipping this cargo. I think it’s insane,” Appleton said. “I’ve been very hesitant to take a side up to now, but with this incident, and with all due respect to the wonderful people that I’ve met at Union Pacific, shareholder value doesn’t outweigh the lives and happiness of our community.”

It's a familiar story to those following the Bakken oil “bomb train” saga — luck.

If I had been there another second, it’d probably have killed me,” Bounds said. “Glass was flying everywhere behind me. The walls were caving in. I hadn’t run like that in years.”

That was Morris Bounds describing to The Spokesman Review how he barely escaped the derailing Bakken oil train that destroyed his home in Mount Carbon, West Virginia in February 2015. He literally saw the train derailing and ran out his front door as the train wiped out his house behind him. 

You don’t get much luckier than Morris Bounds. Or his wife, who happened to be in the hospital that day instead of at home. 

Later that year when another Bakken oil train derailed in a residential neighborhood in Watertown, Wisconsin but did not ignite, Sarah Feinberg, the head of the Federal Railroad Administration, declared, “We feel we got really lucky.”  

Audit of Federal Railroad Administration Enforcement Reveals Serious Failures

In January, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) released the report “Rigged Justice - How Weak Enforcement Lets Corporate Offenders Off Easy” detailing what is known as regulatory capture.

A key point made in the report is that serious corporate offenses — even those resulting in massive environmental contamination or deaths — almost never result in criminal charges against the individuals involved. The most likely outcome is always a small fine that, when compared to the corporation’s annual profits, is nothing more than a rounding error.

While “Rigged Justice” did not specifically focus on the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), an audit of the FRA’s policies on hazardous material transportation by the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Transportation released in February found many of the same issues.

Echoing the message of Warren’s report, the audit notes that “penalties have little deterrent effect, and criminal penalties are not being pursued.”

The audit notes that within the sample of cases reviewed, 17 cases could have been referred for criminal investigation and yet none were. The audit estimates that over 20% of all violations could be reviewed for criminal investigation.

Federal Railroad Administration Moves Forward on Rail Bridge Safety

Earlier this year the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the industry’s top lobbying group, produced a new report on rail safety. While the report ignored serious safety improvements such as requiring modernized braking systems on trains carrying hazardous materials, it did address one area of concern for oil-by-rail activists — rail bridge safety.

The section of the new AAR report on rail bridges opens with the statement “Don’t judge a book by its cover” — arguing that just because a bridge looks unsafe doesn’t mean it is. The report then goes on to describe industry programs to inspect rail bridges.

Railroads have been leaders in bridge safety practices for decades. In fact, long before the federal government began its highway bridge inspection program, the railroads inspected railroad bridges routinely. These inspections require detailed annual checks of each bridge. Safety inspectors sometimes need to scale bridges — often hundreds of feet in the air — to examine the health of bridge members and components.

So the rail industry claims detailed annual checks of each bridge are standard practice. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case. And even if it is the case, the industry has only allowed the public to “judge a book by its cover” because it wouldn’t share these reports with the public.

Positive Train Control, Critical Rail Safety Improvement, Delayed for Decades

In the recent New York Times article “The Wreck of Amtrak 188” Federal Railroad Administration leader Sarah Feinberg explained the advantages of the rail safety technology known as positive train control (PTC).
 
“I’ll describe it to you this way,” Feinberg said. “If a train is traveling in an area where P.T.C. isn’t in place and working as a backstop, you’ve got a situation where an engineer has to execute everything perfectly every hour, every day, every week. All the time. Because the slightest, smallest lapse can mean disaster.”
 
The general consensus is that the Amtrak 188 train crash — which caused eight fatalities — would have been avoided if positive train control was in place. The system would have slowed the train automatically so that it didn’t head into a hard curve going much too fast.
 
But despite the fact PTC was first recommended as a safety measure by the National Transportation Safety Board in 1970, the railroads have failed to install positive train control. So the smallest lapse can mean disaster.

The Flipside of Accuracy: NPR Report on Oil and Ethanol Train Derailments Full of Industry Talking Points

Derailment by Sarah Zarling

On November 7th, a train carrying ethanol in DOT-111 tank cars derailed in Wisconsin, resulting in rail cars rupturing and a spill of 18,000 gallons of ethanol into the Mississippi River.

The next day, a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in a residential area in Watertown, Wisconsin, resulting in a spill of around 1,000 gallons of oil.

These two spills provide another stark reminder of the dangers of moving oil and ethanol along waterways and through residential areas.

It also apparently provided an opportunity for National Public Radio (NPR) to push multiple oil and rail industry talking points. And the article on NPR's website notes NPR is sponsored by America's Natural Gas (ANGA). 

“We Need Not Be Polite” Hears First National Conference On Oil Train Threats

oil train conference

On November 12th, I boarded a train headed to Pittsburgh, PA to attend the first national independent gathering focused on the topic of oil trains. The trip would take me through Philadelphia where an Amtrak train crashed in May resulting in eight fatalities and over 200 injuries. 

There is general consensus that the accident would have been avoided if positive train control technology had been in place. In 2008, Congress mandated that positive train control be installed by the end of 2015. However, the railroads failed to do this and were recently given a three to five year extension by Congress after the rail companies threatened to shut down rail service if the mandate were enforced.

Senate Working to Strip Braking Safety Requirements From Oil Train Regulations

As documented on DeSmog, the new oil-by-rail regulations contain major concessions to the oil and rail industries as the result of relentless lobbying during the rulemaking process. One logical safety measure that the rail industry failed to block from the new rules was a requirement for modern braking systems know as electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes.

However, the rail industry has a Plan B to avoid modernizing their braking systems and so far it is working quite well.

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