The Opinion Pages | New York Times
Dangerous Trains on Aging Rails
By Marcus Stern March 12, 2015
A CSX freight train ran off the rails last month in rural Mount Carbon, W.Va. One after another, exploding rail cars sent hellish fireballs hundreds of feet into the clear winter sky. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency, and the fires burned for several days.
The Feb. 16 accident was one of a series of recent fiery derailments highlighting the danger of using freight trains to ship crude oil from wellheads in North Dakota to refineries in congested regions along America’s coastlines. The most recent was last week, when a Burlington Northern Santa Fe oil train with roughly 100 cars derailed, causing at least two cars, each with about 30,000 gallons of crude oil, to explode, burn and leak near the Mississippi River, south of Galena, Ill.
These explosions have generally been attributed to the design of the rail cars — they’re notoriously puncture-prone — and the volatility of the oil; it tends to blow up. Less attention has been paid to questions surrounding the safety and regulation of the nation’s aging network of 140,000 miles of freight rails, which carry their explosive cargo through urban corridors, sensitive ecological zones and populous suburbs.
Case in point: The wooden trestles that flank the Mobile and Ohio railroad bridge, built in 1898, as it traverses Alabama’s Black Warrior River between the cities of Northport and Tuscaloosa. Oil trains rumble roughly 40 feet aloft, while joggers and baby strollers pass underneath. One of the trestles runs past the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater. Yet when I visited last May, many of the trestles’ supports were rotted and some of its cross braces were dangling or missing.
The public has only one hope of finding out if such centenarian bridges are still sturdy enough to carry these oil trains. Ask the railroads. That’s because the federal government doesn’t routinely inspect rail bridges. In fact, the government lacks any engineering standards whatsoever for rail bridges. Nor does it have an inventory of them.
The only significant government intrusion into the railroads’ self-regulation of the nation’s 70,000 to 100,000 railroad bridges is a requirement that the companies inspect them each year. But the Federal Railroad Administration, which employed only 76 track inspectors as of last year, does not routinely review the inspection reports and allows each railroad to decide for itself whether or not to make repairs.
The railroad that operates the Tuscaloosa bridge, Watco Companies, and the Federal Railroad Administration assured me it was safe. But shortly after my reporting was published on the websites of InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel, Watco announced that it would make $2.5 million in repairs. And the Department of Transportation’s inspector general said it would begin a review of the F.R.A.’s oversight of rail bridges.
Even where federal engineering standards do exist, it’s unclear how much safety they provide. For instance, federal track safety standards allow 19 out of 24 crossties to be defective along any 39-foot stretch of the lowest grade of track, where the speed limit is 10 m.p.h. These crossties stabilize the rails. On the best of tracks, which have a speed limit of 80 m.p.h., the standards allow half of the crossties to be decayed or missing.
Five oil trains have exploded in the United States in the last 16 months. Miraculously, there have been no deaths. Canada, however, hasn’t been so lucky. In July 2013, an oil train carrying North Dakota oil burst into flames in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic, about 10 miles from the Maine border, killing 47 people.
After that accident, federal officials promised to develop sweeping new regulations to make sure nothing like it happens in the United States. In the interim, the Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring railroads to get federal permission before leaving trains unattended with their engines running, a major factor in the Lac-Mégantic explosion. And the railroads agreed to a number of voluntary steps, including keeping oil trains under 50 m.p.h.
But more than a year and a half after Lac-Mégantic, new regulations have yet to be finalized as the railroad and oil industries argue about various proposed provisions. The emergency order didn’t end the practice of railroads’ leaving oil trains on tracks with their engines running; it simply required companies to have a written plan for doing so. And without regulations, reporting or penalties, the public has only the railroads’ word they are complying with the 50 m.p.h. speed limit.
For trackside communities, the stakes are obviously high. New hydraulic fracturing technology has allowed oil developers to tap vast amounts of deeply buried oil in parts of North Dakota, Montana and Canada. Without significant new pipeline capacity, the only way to get the oil to refineries is by train. Rail car shipments of crude oil rose from 9,500 in 2008 to more than 400,000 last year.
To protect communities and the environment, the Transportation Department needs to act quickly to require more resilient rail cars, improve the safety of rail infrastructure and operations, and reduce the volatility of oil at the wellhead, before it is loaded onto trains.
Instead, the debate over regulations inches along as oil trains continue to roll through downtown Philadelphia, suburban Chicago and along the Hudson River in New York and the Schuylkill in eastern Pennsylvania, passing close to a nuclear power plant.
Before leaving office last year, Deborah A. P. Hersman, the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, questioned whether industry representatives and regulators had a tombstone mentality when it came to oil trains. If nobody dies, she suggested, there’s no pressure to act. So far, the tombstones have all been in Canada.