Dangerous trains, aging rails, what could possibly go wrong?

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…

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…

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…

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…And without regulations, reporting or penalties, the public has only the railroads’ word they are complying with the 50 m.p.h. speed limit…

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.

Does any of this sound like a successful industry in a modern, progressive nation?

Like all of the 19th Century economy remaining in North America, we witness only the greed of those who inherited, stole or otherwise acquired control of the assets of out-of-date industries – and the technology that came with it. If unionized, they bring in every flavor of corrupt politician to take away rights and safe practices. Any portion of their fiefdom out of sight of urban watchdogs is fair game for ignoring safety. And state governments – who could count on corporations and Congress to actually work together at building out and growing, say, in 1955 – haven’t admitted to themselves that maintaining this old infrastructure is necessary; so, let’s just ignore it. Maybe it will go away?

That will happen the same way highway bridges and overpasses will heal themselves with magic concrete and gasoline will stay under $3 a gallon right on into the 22nd Century.

7 thoughts on “Dangerous trains, aging rails, what could possibly go wrong?

    • KC says:

      BNSF Implements New Safety Rules for Oil Trains http://flatheadbeacon.com/2015/03/31/bnsf-implements-new-safety-rules-for-oil-trains/ In a letter to shippers and posted online, Steve Bobb, BNSF executive vice president and chief marketing officer, and Greg Fox, executive vice president and chief operations officer, said the railway company was putting regulations in place to move oil safely, including slowing oil trains’ speed in areas with 100,000 people or more to 35 mph, urging shippers to use stronger tanker cars and will ban DOT-111 and unmodified CPC-1232 tank cars in three years.

  1. Mike23 says:

    Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter Marcus Stern spent the past year looking into the risks of transporting oil on rail tanker cars and how regulators have responded, or failed to, following the tragedy in Canada. See “A Hard Look At The Risks Of Transporting Oil On Rail Tanker Cars” @ http://www.npr.org/2015/02/25/389008046/a-hard-look-at-the-risks-of-transporting-oil-on-rail-tanker-cars ) For more info Google “Boom: America’s Explosive Oil-by-Rail Problem.”

  2. News item says:

    TRENTON, S.C. Norfolk Southern officials have said 31 cars derailed when a train struck a tree across the railroad tracks Friday night. The train had two locomotives, 52 loaded cars, and 30 empty cars. It weighed 7,722 tons and was 5,405 feet long, Norfolk Southern officials said. Some of the derailed cars were carrying ammonium nitrate, which is used as a fertilizer. Other cars were carrying anhydrous ammonia, which can be dangerous, according to Rick Harris with Norfolk Southern. Between 25 and 30 homes within a one-and-a-half mile radius of the derailment were evacuated and residents were sent to Mt. Canaan Baptist Church. http://www.wrdw.com/home/headlines/Law-enforcement-on-scene-of-train-derailment-in-Trenton-299420401.html Re: ammonium nitrate see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ammonium_nitrate_disasters also “Is Anhydrous Ammonia a Risk to Your Community?” http://www.foreffectivegov.org/is-anhydrous-ammonia-a-risk-to-your-community

  3. Update says:

    (Oct 9th): A U.S. bankruptcy judge on Friday approved a $338 million settlement fund for victims of the fiery 2013 oil train derailment that claimed 47 lives in Quebec, clearing the way for payments to victims by year’s end.
    Judge Peter Cary announced his approval after Canadian Pacific dropped its objection and after a Canadian judge gave conditional approval Thursday. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/10/9/judge-approves-338M-for-quebec-train-derailment-victims.html The train’s operator, Maine-based Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, filed for bankruptcy, and the settlement fund is part of those bankruptcy proceedings in the U.S. and Canada. Wrongful death lawsuits were on hold while the settlement was sorted out. Now Canadian Pacific {who failed to properly classify the volatility of the Bakken region crude oil in its tank cars – which was as volatile as gasoline} could be sued in several jurisdictions, and there’s also a separate criminal case pending against several workers who are charged with criminal negligence causing death.

  4. Update says:

    Investigators reveal cause of West Virginia train derailment: “Two separate tests in the two months prior to a fiery oil train derailment in West Virginia earlier this year showed the presence of a rail defect, according to a report on the incident. ( https://www.fra.dot.gov/eLib/details/L17123#p1_z5_gD_lAC ) But neither the railroad nor the contractor who did the tests followed up on the results in December 2014 and January 2015, and the rail broke under a 107-car CSX train loaded with Bakken crude oil. The Feb. 16 derailment near Mount Carbon, W.Va., led to explosions, fires and the evacuation of 1,100 nearby residents.” http://dot111.info/category/disasters/lynchburg-va/ See also other articles and map illustrating how the number of rail related oil spills has grown over the past few years. Meanwhile: “Railroads warn of nationwide meltdown if extension not granted for safety requirements : Companies tell Congress they need more time to install mandated safety equipment. But many politicians are annoyed that the railroads have failed to meet a federal deadline first imposed eight years ago.” http://www.startribune.com/railroads-warn-of-nationwide-meltdown-if-extension-not-granted-for-safety-requirements/331951581/ and “The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is issuing an “urgent” recommendation for expanded federal oversight of the Metrorail subway system in Washington, D.C. after a series of safety lapses this year. The NTSB is calling for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to take over regulation of the beleaguered Metro system, which has been under fire for most of the year following the death of a passenger on a smoke-filled train in January.” http://thehill.com/policy/transportation/255452-increased-federal-oversight-recommended-for-dc-metro

  5. Casey says:

    “Railroads ignore train crew complaints at their own peril: Analysis” https://ble-t.org/news/railroads-ignore-train-crew-complaints-at-their-own-peril-analysis/
    “Federal regulators welcome input from rank-and-file railroad workers amid widespread service problems : Union Pacific engineer’s letter to the Surface Transportation Board prompted more than three dozen other railroaders to share their concerns about crew shortages and the state of the industry” https://www.trains.com/trn/news-reviews/news-wire/federal-regulators-welcome-input-from-rank-and-file-railroad-workers-amid-widespread-service-problems/

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