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Railroad Expert Worries About Oil Train Safety

Oil containers sit at a train depot on July 26, 2013 outside Williston, North Dakota. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Oil containers sit at a train depot on July 26, 2013 outside Williston, North Dakota. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Most of downtown Lynchburg, Virginia is back to normal, after 17 cars of a 105-car train carrying especially explosive oil crashed last week, sending flames 100 feet into the air near City Hall.

It was the ninth significant accident in the past year in the U.S. and Canada, involving trains carrying oil.

This week, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order for railroads, for the first time, to tell state officials when the longest of these so-called oil trains are passing through.

Paul Sando, an expert in rail logistics, discusses his concerns with Here & Now’s Robin Young. He says older trains derail more often than newer ones, but many of the old ones are not being phased out because they’re in demand, as a result of the boom in oil production.

Sando notes that even older tankers that have been reinforced have crashed at speeds below the speed limits set by the railroad industry.

Guest

  • Paul Sando, assistant professor of geography at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. Most of downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, is back to normal after 17 cars of a 105-car train carrying especially explosive oil crashed last week. That's amazing that it's back to normal, because flames shot 100 feet in the air, close to city hall. Several hundred people were evacuated from a 12-block area, and as many as 20 businesses were closed.

But thankfully, incredibly, no one was injured. This was the ninth significant accident in the past year in the U.S. and Canada involving trains carrying oil. People may be surprised to learn that train companies don't have to tell local officials about trains that derail, except under certain conditions. Town officials in western Massachusetts didn't even know about a derailment that had no spill or fire until an official drove by it the next day.

But just this week, the Department of Transportation ordered railroads for the first time to tell state officials about when these so-called oil trains are coming through. Paul Sando teaches geography and tracks trains at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Paul, wow, up until now state officials knew almost nothing about what was being carried through their town.

PAUL SANDO: If there was any disclosure before this, it was voluntary. A number of railroads have been pretty good about Hazmat and letting people know but not all the time. And oil was not considered as hazardous as other things that the railroad might be carrying.

YOUNG: Well, and we know that railroads have also resisted disclosure because of what they called national security concerns, they maybe didn't want people to know where these trains with this flammable oil, you know, where they were. Talk about concerns about many of the cars that the railroads are using, an old design that may spill their contents more easily than newer ones.

SANDO: Probably the most important thing for the near term in this disclosure requirement is that railroads will have to disclose if a train carrying oil has an older designed tank car in the contents that may be of a greater hazard than the newer designed ones.

In almost all of the incidents up to this point, including the one in Virginia, older designed cars were involved and did rupture. To put this in perspective as what kind of a problem this is for the industry, both politicians and industry officials want to get rid of the older designed cars, but they're at odds at how to do it quickly.

There are about 92,000 tank cars for hazardous liquid service currently in operation, and of those, 78,000 are the older design. So if you took them out of service right now, that would be three-quarters of your fleet gone.

YOUNG: Well, and that comes at a time of an oil boom.

SANDO: Yes, exactly. And not only you have four builders and a new fifth builder that are ramping up to replace all of those older designed cars, but it may take several years, because not only do they have to replace the ones that are here, but that 92,000 number will have to increase, as well, because of demand for moving oil.

YOUNG: Well, this week the Department of Transportation strongly urged oil companies to take the most dangerous tanker cars off the tracks as soon as possible. And as we mentioned, there is this oil boom from the North Dakota Bakken Oil Fields, where most of the oil from these trains is coming. We had been hearing in reporting, when there were other derailments, that this Bakken oil is more flammable than other crude oil.

SANDO: Yeah. Well, let me put it in perspective for you. My grandfather used to distribute home heating oil, and when I was a kid, he showed me a drip pan that was underneath a valve that had about an inch of home heating oil standing in it. And I said I thought that was kind of hazardous, isn't that flammable, and my grandfather lit a match and dropped it in the pan, and the match went out.

Oil must be atomized in order to burn. Now, the Bakken crude oil has a lot more volatile chemicals in it that vaporize quickly. So it is more flammable, more explosive than crude oil has been, technically, in the past.

YOUNG: Well, up in Canada after that deadly Lac-Megantic oil train crash last summer, Canada ordered railroads there to, at their own cost, replace 5,000 of these older cars within 30 days and remove or retrofit the rest within three years. They seemed to jump on this a little harder.

SANDO: Yes, they did. It's still 2017 is the final date for removing the older designed cars in Canada.

YOUNG: Back to the U.S., the tankers that crashed in Lynchburg were a reinforced design. Railroad companies voluntarily started using them three years ago. But they were reinforced, and the train was traveling well below the new speed limit that's been set by railroads to try to improve safety of oil trains. So what's happening here? Is - this self-regulation, is it not up to snuff? They were reinforced designs, and it was a lower speed.

SANDO: Yes, and I guess the only thing we can say about this is nothing is perfect. Even the newer designed cars, with the head shields and with double-strength fittings on the cars will fail if presented with the wrong set of circumstances.

YOUNG: Well, that brings us to other variables. The tracks, who's responsible for the rails?

SANDO: That is mostly the domain of the companies. The railroads are responsible for their infrastructure. Now, if it is a regional carrier, they may not be running on their own rails. You get into right-of-way agreements, where one company's trains run on another company's track, and then you get into who's responsible at that point.

YOUNG: One last question. As you well know, there's a debate over the Keystone pipeline. And some people describe these oil trains as moving pipelines, in defense of them saying, you know, they're better environmentally than a pipeline, or criticizing them by saying that they could have the same problems that people worry about with pipelines.

Put that debate aside. You say it's incorrect to say that the Keystone oil pipeline would eliminate some of this train travel with oil.

SANDO: Yeah, the original proposed design for the Keystone XL Pipeline was to move Alberta tar sands oil to the Gulf Coast refineries. It did not go through the Bakken Oil Field area. Only if there was an extension built would it go through the Bakken Oil Field area, or there would have to be some other means of getting the oil to a point where it could be put in the pipeline, probably, again, by rail.

YOUNG: What do you think the country needs to do to improve oil train safety?

SANDO: Well, I think we're doing a number of things right now that are applicable to this: making the cars as safe as possible. But again, nothing is perfect. As far as operating - unless you lower the speed further, and then you're talking congesting the railroads because you're not moving very fast - I am kind of at a loss beyond what we are already doing as to improving the safety on the rails, except for if money were no object, we would have separate tracks for freight and a separate track for passenger. That could eliminate a lot of hazard. Freight traffic would be designed for a different weight and speed specification.

YOUNG: By the way, do you see these trains where you are?

SANDO: Oh, gosh, yes. I am in Moorhead, Minnesota, which is right across the river from Fargo, North Dakota, and we have, on average, 30 - or 74 to 76 trains a day through Fargo-Moorhead, of which about eight to 10 are oil trains. And I have been railroaded just last week at the same gate crossing three times in one day.

YOUNG: Railroaded, which is the meaning of the word, you were held up by a gate. Wow. Are you - do you worry?

SANDO: Oh, yeah. We have a situation here where we have a Main Street and 20th Avenue where the tracks literally run right through the middle of the intersection. They're at grade level. It's about a block away from the high school.

YOUNG: Paul Sando, associate professor of geography at Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Thank you so much, professor, for speaking with us.

SANDO: You are very welcome, thank you.

YOUNG: And Jeremy, listeners have been weighing in all day on our Facebook page.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

Yeah.

YOUNG: Many think that the railroad companies should be forced to build a new set of tracks. Of course, we have to think of costs there, but what are the costs of the crashes. Adam Brevin(ph) also adds: We do have a right to know what's on these trains, but what gets me is why do you never see train loads of toys spilling? And Darwood Martin(ph) responds, well, trains full of toys don't explode...

HOBSON: Also true.

YOUNG: ...and don't make the news. We'll hear from you, as well, Facebook.com/hereandnowradio. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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