15 Finds Out: The battle for safer oil trains

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Millions of gallons of crude oil travel through northeast Indiana every week via railroads. In light of recent derailments, federal regulators are currently considering proposals that would drastically change how railroads ship the hazardous material through the community.

But the railroads say some of the new guidelines could slow a growing industry that’s bringing jobs to the area.

The railroad industry is one that’s ingrained in northeast Indiana history. CSX Transportation said it employs 247 people in the Garrett rail yard. Norfolk Southern said it employs more than 500 people in Fort Wayne/Allen County. Each company has a high-volume line in the area and is hiring.

The momentum is partly thanks to booming energy production in the U.S. More crude oil is being drilled from the Bakken Shale formation in North Dakota. Much of it passes right through northeast Indiana, taking the shortest route to east coast refineries.

Since the beginning of 2013, there have been at least 10 major oil train derailments in the U.S. and Canada. Homes have been evacuated, 10’s of thousands of gallons have spilled into the environment, and one incident in Quebec killed 47 people.

In response, federal officials ordered railroads to tell each state where large oil trains are traveling and how often. Last week, 15 Finds Out first reported that the Indiana Dept. of Homeland Security admitted it delayed giving those stats to first responders.

But federal officials are proposing much more to prevent future accidents. In July, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) laid out new safety proposals for trains carrying 20 or more tank cars of flammable liquids, including crude oil. The regulations include: enhanced braking, sturdier tank cars, and lower speed limits.

Enhanced braking

PHMSA proposed three options for enhanced braking. The Association of American Railroads (AAR) said it has already agreed to use two of those options on oil trains. It opposes using electronic controlled pneumatic brakes on all oil trains, a system that would stop all train cars at the same time instead of one-by-one. In a statement, leaders with AAR told 15 Finds Out the new braking system is “very costly” and has “no supporting data that shows improved safety benefits.”

Sturdier tank cars

PHMSA proposed three options for thicker, more puncture-resistant tank cars to transport crude oil and other flammable liquids. It also called for an aggressive, two-year timeline to phase out older tank cars that are more prone to puncture and explode during derailments.

But the oil and rail industries want seven years to retrofit all existing tank cars to the new standards.

Leaders with Norfolk Southern told 15 Finds Out they support sturdier tank cars, but they wouldn’t have to pay for the upgrades since the railroads don’t own most of the cars.

“We are always trying to raise the bar of safety and performance,” said Dave Pidgeon, public relations manager for Norfolk Southern. “One of the ways that we are doing that is pushing for stricter safety standards on these tank cars.”

Lower speed limits

PHMSA proposed three speed limit options for oil trains that don’t meet the new tank car standards:

  • 40 mph maximum speed limit in all areas
  • 40 mph speed limit in high threat urban areas
  • 40 mph speed limit in areas with a 100K+ population

PHMSA also proposed a 30 mph speed limit for oil trains that don’t have the new mandated braking system.

AAR said the industry has already agreed to reduce speeds for hazardous trains in some areas. They travel 40 mph in cities known as high urban threat areas. That includes Indianapolis, but nowhere else in Indiana.

See a list of all the high urban threat areas

But in a statement, AAR told 15 Finds Out a nationwide 40 mph speed limit on all oil trains would “dramatically impair service for both freight and passenger railroads at a time when the freight rail is playing a key role in the continuing resurgence of the country’s economy.”

Leaders with CSX Transportation gave a similar view.

“Sometimes there are unintended consequences in lowering the speed in terms of keeping commodities idling on a network longer,” said Tom Livingston, CSX’s regional vice president for government affairs in the Midwest. “It causes problems in other places.”

Increased training

Crews from across Indiana participate in CSX's "Safety Train" program in Indianapolis. The goal is to prepare for an oil train derailment.
Crews from across Indiana participate in CSX’s “Safety Train” program in Indianapolis. The goal is to prepare for an oil train derailment.

In the meantime, the railroads are boosting training for first responders.  CSX recently took its “Safety Train” through Indianapolis, teaching crews from across Indiana how to respond to potential oil train derailments.

Auburn Fire Chief Mike VanZile said CSX has also paid for some of his firefighters to go through more extensive training in Colorado.

“They go out there, it’s all hands on, they spend a week, they come back, and we use that at the local level to train our firefighters here,” VanZile said. “Now with the increase with crude oil, we have probably trained more with crude then ever before in the last two or three months.”

Leaders from Norfolk Southern said they are also providing training. Pidgeon told 15 Finds Out they are increasing track inspections along crude oil routes as well.

In the end, it’s a delicate track for federal regulators. They’re working to prevent a growing risk without stalling an industry said to be driving economic growth.

“You’re going to see a continued focus on the ability to move this traffic without incident,” Livingston said. “There are no guarantees ever in a situation. But we feel we can get it to a very safe place.”

CSX leaders tell 15 Finds Out they expect federal officials to make a final ruling on oil train regulations by the end of the year.

15 Finds Out continues its investigative series “Through Your Backyard” Thursday, November 13. Tune in at 6 to find out how local emergency crews would respond if an oil train would derail in northeast Indiana.

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