Major Gaps in Plan to Slow Down Oil Trains

A safety push by the government and rail industry only covers 46 urban areas.

Photo taken August 20, 2013 shows a freight train pulling out of the Hess Gas Plant in Tioga, North Dakota. AFP PHOTO / Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
March 9, 2014, 9:43 a.m.

Com­munit­ies across the coun­try see­ing a glut of trains car­ry­ing crude from Amer­ica’s boom­ing oil fields could feel left be­hind by a new gov­ern­ment and in­dustry push to im­prove safety on the rails.

The Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment and the Amer­ic­an As­so­ci­ation of Rail­roads, a group rep­res­ent­ing ma­jor North Amer­ic­an freight car­ri­ers, re­leased a list last month of 46 urb­an areas where trains with oil-tank cars will be re­quired to slow down by Ju­ly 1, if not be­fore.

But there are some big gaps in the list of areas where the max­im­um speeds will be re­duced from 50 to 40 mph. Most of the places where crude-by-rail ac­ci­dents have taken place in the past year are not on the list.

Some mem­bers of Con­gress are sound­ing alarms. Sen. Chuck Schu­mer of New York is ask­ing DOT and AAR to re­vise the agree­ment and cast a broad­er net. “It’s crit­ic­al that stake­hold­ers go back to the draw­ing board and re­view the list of loc­a­tions for lower speed lim­its,” Schu­mer told re­port­ers last week.

Buf­falo and New York City are the only two cit­ies in Schu­mer’s state where oil-bear­ing trains will be re­quired to slow down, des­pite the fact that high volumes of crude pass through a num­ber of New York cit­ies and towns.

When asked wheth­er com­munit­ies left off the list have been giv­en short shrift, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota said: “We want reg­u­lat­ors to take a com­pre­hens­ive look. Just be­cause someone’s in a lower pop­u­la­tion area, we don’t want to not give them the same level of pro­tec­tion.”

Res­id­ents of Cas­selton, N.D., watched a massive fire­ball rise in late Decem­ber after a train car­ry­ing crude de­railed. Yet Cas­selton is not on the list of places that DOT and AAR have deemed “high-risk.”

Crude-by-rail ship­ments have soared in the U.S. due to a surge in oil pro­duc­tion brought about by the one-two punch of hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing and ho­ri­zont­al drilling. But re­cent ac­ci­dents in­volving crude-rail trans­port have led pub­lic-safety ad­voc­ates and law­makers to ques­tion rail safety.

The de­bate has taken on great­er ur­gency amid spec­u­la­tion that crude sourced from North Dakota’s Bakken form­a­tion may be more volat­ile than oil from oth­er re­gions of the coun­try.

Reg­u­lat­ors want you to know, however, that just be­cause a city or town isn’t tar­geted for lower-speed trains, it doesn’t mean oth­er safe­guards won’t be put in place.

“It’s a case-by-case basis and rail car­ri­ers have agreed to co­oper­ate with cit­ies across the board on ad­di­tion­al steps, in­clud­ing speed re­duc­tions, that will im­prove safety,” Fed­er­al Rail­road Ad­min­is­trat­or Joseph Sz­abo said in an in­ter­view. “I think too much fo­cus has been put on rail speeds while not enough at­ten­tion has been giv­en to all the oth­er agree­ments we’ve put in place such as the rout­ing pro­tocol which rail op­er­at­ors will use to de­term­ine the most safe and se­cure route to move crude.”

Re­pub­lic­an Sen. John Ho­even of North Dakota said that speed re­stric­tions are already in place in Cas­selton to en­sure that trains car­ry­ing crude don’t ex­ceed 40 miles per hour, des­pite the fact that the city was left off the list of high-risk areas.

Sz­abo also cau­tioned that slow­ing speeds could cause new prob­lems. “Com­munit­ies need to un­der­stand there are trade-offs to slow­ing things down,” he said. “You have to bal­ance the flow of com­merce as well as the po­ten­tial im­pacts on the com­munit­ies, and it’s im­port­ant to look at the im­pact on the over­all rail net­work.”

In oth­er words, it’s a bal­an­cing act. It’s too soon to say if speed re­stric­tions will lead to bot­tle­necks on the tracks, but it’s not out of the ques­tion.

“It’s kind of like mer­ging onto a high­way. When you have a train that slows down it’s not just a ques­tion of how it af­fects that one train, it’s also a ques­tion of how that af­fects all the oth­er traffic,” said Low­ell Roth­schild, a seni­or coun­sel at the law firm Bracewell & Gi­uliani who works on crude-by-rail is­sues.

Freight cars car­ry­ing crude are already caus­ing delays of up to sev­er­al hours for Amtrak in the north­w­est United States. And DOT is well aware of the prob­lem. Pas­sen­ger rail ad­voc­ates, in­clud­ing the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Rail­road Pas­sen­gers, have lodged form­al com­plaints with the de­part­ment, say­ing that crude trans­port is gum­ming up the works and needs to be fixed.

One thing is clear, however. The push to im­prove rail safety won’t end soon. “This agree­ment is noth­ing but one more step in an on­go­ing pro­cess and something that can gen­er­ate tan­gible and sig­ni­fic­ant safety be­ne­fits to the pub­lic quickly while we con­tin­ue to re­view all of our op­tions to make sure that crude is moved safely across the coun­try,” Sz­abo said.

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