Associated Press (via Columbus CEO) | July 19, 2014 | Column by Eric Anderson

ALBANY, N.Y. — Are railroads up to the task of safely transporting volatile Bakken crude? Several major accidents over the past year — including one that killed 47 people in a small Quebec town — suggest more needs to be done.

CSX and Canadian Pacific, the two major rail carriers that deliver Bakken crude to the Port of Albany, have slowed oil trains, stepped up track and equipment inspections, trained emergency responders in extinguishing oil fires, and have begun sharing information on shipments with officials along their routes.

But gaps — some of them regulatory — exist.

A plan to slow trains that include older, unsafe DOT-111 tank cars and those carrying 20 or more tank cars of crude, to no more than 40 mph doesn't apply to the Capital Region.

That's because the federal rule covers only "high-threat urban areas" as determined by the Department of Homeland Security, a list that doesn't include Albany, even though on any given day hundreds of tank cars may be parked next to the city's downtown.

In fact, in New York only Buffalo and New York City are on the list, and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer pointed out that New York City has only minimal oil train traffic.

Safety comes down to keeping the trains on the tracks, stopping at them at red signals, and removing explosive gases from the oil before it's shipped.

Tracks have been getting more attention lately. Residents who live near Canadian Pacific's line through the Capital Region's river communities report seeing a surge in track work. CP officials said inspections have indeed been increased.

And both Canadian Pacific and CSX Transportation someday will have more advanced positive train control systems installed, although they won't meet the deadline of the end of next year set by Congress.

Positive train control, or PTC, would have prevented a number of serious accidents, according to Federal Railroad Administration's Joseph Szabo. This computerized system can detect such things as a train running through a red signal or exceeding the speed limit, as well as switches that may not be properly set, and if a problem is found, can automatically stop the train.

Positive train control likely would have prevented the collision of two CSX freight trains near Fonda last July. The accident occurred after one train passed a red signal. Thirty freight cars derailed, but none was carrying hazardous materials.

''CSX is focused on implementing PTC as quickly and safely as possible, and development of PTC technology is under way at CSX," spokesman Rob Doolittle said last week. The railroad will spend $300 million this year, "which includes installing necessary hardware on locomotives and updating switching systems to be PTC-compatible," Doolittle said.

Canadian Pacific also has started installing PTC components on its line between the Canadian border and Albany, spokesman Ed Greenberg said Thursday.

''CP supports PTC as we believe it will add an additional layer of safety into train operations, which already have strict company safety protocols and procedures in place," Greenberg said.

Still, he said it will be difficult to meet the Dec. 31, 2015, congressional deadline to have the system operating.

Both Greenberg and Doolittle said the software being developed to operate the complex system isn't yet ready.

Track conditions also are critical. While the number of derailments nationwide dropped by 46 percent from 2004 to 2013, they were still a factor in major oil train derailments over the past year in Virginia, South Dakota and elsewhere. And oil tankers derailed in two Capital Region railyards in recent months.

Where tracks follow rivers or lakes, they're susceptible to washouts. Warren Flatau, an FRA spokesman, said railroads are required to inspect track after a fire, flood, severe storm or geologic event such as an earthquake, before any train operates over the track.

Members of People of Albany United for Safe Energy report seeing rails "flex" as freight trains pass over them, and one member, Nancy Casler of Menands, said the track 25 feet from her property has a number of loose spikes that are supposed to secure the rail to ties on which it rests, and that some of the ties appear to have deteriorated.

The line carries anywhere from one to as many as three oil trains a day, according to Casler, although Greenberg said they travel at 25 mph or slower.

CSX said it conducts visual inspections of track and related infrastructure several times a week, and has trackside sensors that can recognize dragging equipment that could damage tracks, overweight locomotives or freight cars, and whether wheels are putting unusual stresses on rails.

Drainage ditches and culverts are cleaned and inspected regularly, and inspectors perform visual inspections using special vehicles twice a week.

Railroads are using what's called the Rail Corridor Risk Management System to help determine the safest and most secure route for trains with 20 or more cars of crude oil. The system uses such factors as population density, the capabilities of emergency responders along the route, the quality of track and signals, and the volume of hazardous material, to map out the route.

Last week, state emergency management officials said they wouldn't agree to keep information railroads are required by the federal government to file on oil train shipments private.

Filings by both CP and CSX were released to the public by midweek. The filings showed that up to 42 oil trains a week typically travel into and through the Capital Region, with most continuing on rails down the Hudson River valley.

Still, the Bakken crude, with its dissolved gases, remains extremely volatile.

Asked whether there's an effort to have oil drillers strip explosive gases before the Bakken crude is shipped, Doolittle of CSX said that "our focus has been on efforts to ensure the safety of the transportation aspects of that product, rather than the nature of the product itself."

CP's Greenberg said he wasn't in a position to comment on whether explosive gases should be removed from Bakken crude before it's shipped.

''This is a complex multi-faceted issue requiring ongoing collaboration involving regulators, the railroads that own the locomotives and tracks, the shippers which supply the cars and the producers of the product," he said. "CP is actively involved in this collaboration to make the rail industry even safer."

eanderson(at) - 518-454-5323

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commented 2014-07-23 08:17:49 -0400 · Flag
Too many problems to fix; let’s just switch to renewables.
@PAUSEnergy tweeted this page. 2014-07-22 23:48:01 -0400
PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy posted about DESPITE NEW SAFETY FOCUS, GAPS EXIST on PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy's Facebook page 2014-07-22 23:48:01 -0400
PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.