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UD expert calls on oil train operators to step up safety measures

Delaware Public Media

Oil trains en route to Delaware City Refinery could be made safer with the adoption of more than two dozen measures recommended this week by a University of Delaware expert.

Prof. Allan Zarembski, Director of the UD’s Railroad Engineering and Safety Program, called on railroads and government officials to implement the measures in a report commissioned by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf in response to growing public concern about the risks of a catastrophic event like that which a runaway oil train exploded and killed 47 people in Lac Megantic, Quebec, in 2013.

Public concern has been fueled by the proliferation of oil trains carrying crude from the Bakken Shale of North Dakota and Montana to East Coast refineries such as Delaware City and Philadelphia.

Zarembski proposed 27 measures designed to prevent derailments, improve the resilience of tank cars in the event of a derailment, and make state and local emergency responders better able to deal with a catastrophic event.

To make tank cars more resistant to puncturing, the report recommended installing improved head shields; increasing the thickness of tank shells; protecting valves, and reducing train speeds.

It called on railroads to install Positive Train Control technology – which can automatically slow speeding trains -- as soon as possible in order to comply with new federal regulations following the deadly Amtrak derailment outside Philadelphia in May.

Zarembski said there is “concern about the level of risk” on lines where Norfolk Southern and CSX haul oil trains, even though additional safety measures recently taken by the railroad industry and the U.S. Department of Transportation have been “of great value.”

He defined an oil-train catastrophe as an event that involved a derailment, the escape of crude because of ruptured tank cars, and an explosion.

The report called on railroads to voluntarily reduce oil-train speeds to 35 mph in cities with a population of more than 100,000 people. New federal standards for “high-hazard flammable trains”, published in May, set a limit of 40 mph in urban areas and 50 nationally.

The Pennsylvania report urged officials to set a series of minimum inspection standards such as requiring track geometry to be tested at least four times a year.

During a conference call with reporters, Zarembski said his recommendations were based on reducing the risk of a derailment or explosion, and on their practicality as steps that could be implemented by the railroads. The proposals do not rely, for example, on technology that has not been developed yet, he said.

“The idea is to develop improved inspection and/or operating practices that will reduce the risk of this type of undesired event,” he said.

Zarembski said he focused the recommendations on measures that could be taken by the railroads themselves, or by states without recourse to other levels of government, especially the federal government, which regulates the railroad industry.

He acknowledged that the railroads are already working on some of the recommendations but argued that his proposals, if adopted, would raise safety standards beyond current levels.

“Yes, the railroads are doing many of the things that we say but the question is, can we get the railroads to do it at a level where we can reduce the risk further,” Zarembski said.

Asked about the cost of the technology proposed in the report, Zarembski said it varies widely from $200,000-$400,000 for a device called a Wheel Impact Load Detector to an estimated price tag of $10 billion for Positive Train Control if it was implemented nationwide.

John Hanger, Gov. Wolf’s Secretary of Planning and Policy, said the state will implement five of the 27 measures over which it has direct control, including getting inspectors to include yards and sidings in their inspection program, and supporting the creation of national standards for crude by rail.

Although the state can’t implement Positive Train Control, it is already encouraging railroads to install the technology, as advocated by the report, Hanger said.

In Delaware, a battle may also be brewing over concerns about the idling of oil train locomotives which residents say causes air and noise pollution in residential areas.

A bill that bans idling freight trains except under certain conditions was passed overwhelmingly by both chambers of Delaware’s General Assembly earlier this year and was recently signed into law by Gov. Jack Markell (D-Delaware).

But the measure is opposed by Norfolk Southern, which last week asked the Surface Transportation Board to nullify it, arguing that the new law is superseded by federal law because the railroad industry is federally regulated.

Senate Majority Leader David McBride (D-Hawk’s Nest) said residents living along NS lines serving Delaware City Refinery are affected by noise, exhaust fumes and vibration as trains idle along the line and a siding built to service the refinery.

“Non-essential idling is all we’re asking Norfolk Southern to curb so it can be a better neighbor to the citizens whose lives are disrupted,” McBride said in a statement.

He said the idling trains force people to close their windows, stop them enjoying their yards, and in some cases have damaged homes.

McBride called on Attorney General Matt Denn (D) to defend the bill.

Carl Kanefsky, a spokesman for Denn, said the McBride’s petition is under review. “We are reviewing the petition and a response will be filed on behalf of the state,” he said.

Meanwhile, neither Norfolk Southern nor CSX responded to the specific proposals in the report.

Norfolk Southern said in a statement that it carries hazardous materials, including crude oil, that safely reach their destination “99.998 percent of the time” while CSX said it has made “significant investments” in the tracks used for oil trains over the past two years.

Jon has been reporting on environmental and other topics for Delaware Public Media since 2011. Stories range from sea-level rise and commercial composting to the rebuilding program at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and the University of Delaware’s aborted data center plan.
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