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.
What We're Following See More »
"Saudi Arabia said Saturday that Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi journalist who disappeared more than two weeks ago, had died after an argument and fistfight with unidentified men inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Eighteen men have been arrested and are being investigated in the case, Saudi state-run media reported without identifying any of them. State media also reported that Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the deputy director of Saudi intelligence, and other high-ranking intelligence officials had been dismissed."
"Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is scrutinizing how a collection of activists and pundits intersected with WikiLeaks, the website that U.S. officials say was the primary conduit for publishing materials stolen by Russia, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Mueller’s team has recently questioned witnesses about the activities of longtime Trump confidante Roger Stone, including his contacts with WikiLeaks, and has obtained telephone records, according to the people familiar with the matter."
"Special Counsel Robert Mueller is expected to issue findings on core aspects of his Russia probe soon after the November midterm elections ... Specifically, Mueller is close to rendering judgment on two of the most explosive aspects of his inquiry: whether there were clear incidents of collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, and whether the president took any actions that constitute obstruction of justice." Mueller has faced pressure to wrap up the investigation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, said an official, who would receive the results of the investigation and have "some discretion in deciding what is relayed to Congress and what is publicly released," if he remains at his post.
"The Justice Department on Friday charged a Russian woman for her alleged role in a conspiracy to interfere with the 2018 U.S. election, marking the first criminal case prosecutors have brought against a foreign national for interfering in the upcoming midterms. Elena Khusyaynova, 44, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. Prosecutors said she managed the finances of 'Project Lakhta,' a foreign influence operation they said was designed 'to sow discord in the U.S. political system' by pushing arguments and misinformation online about a host of divisive political issues, including immigration, the Confederate flag, gun control and the National Football League national-anthem protests."