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The Harmar derailment was actually avoidable and an example of another failure to provide necessary rail safety infrastructure.  This was a totally unprotected at- grade crossing.  No gates.  No oncoming train warning lights.  No signals of any kind.  These naked crossings exist all over Pittsburgh.  Having such a crossing immediately prior to a rail bridge that regularly carries hazardous cargo and volatile oil over a river that supplies the drinking water for most of Pittsburgh is unacceptable.  Every rail bridge over water presents that grave risk.

What people don’t realize is that currently 40 to 50% of all of the volatile Bakken crude oil going to the East Coast refineries comes directly through Pittsburgh.  Even without adding our energy aid to Europe, the length and volume of those “bomb” trains is going to increase exponentially.

According to the Wall Street Journal, each of those tank car holds the equivalent of 2 million sticks of dynamite.  There is no credible emergency response to burning oil cars.  First responders are instructed to back away and let it burn out for however many days it takes.  That results in vast amounts of carcinogenic pollution entering our air shed.  The emphasis has to be on deterrence rather than response.

Next Tuesday, Pittsburgh City Council is poised to approve an agreement which will allow higher center of gravity, less stable double-stack trains to run adjacent to these volatile oil trains on a zigzag line through Pittsburgh’s most densely populated neighborhoods.  In addition, as an aid to Ukraine, the Biden administration is deciding whether to allow liquid natural gas under pressure to be carried along our rail lines nationwide for the first time in history.  Because the Pittsburgh Line is the most east-west direct route, we can expect that line to be used to its full capacity of 70-80 trains per day carrying all three types of trains.  While our news sources are focusing the public on the integrity of vehicular bridges, it is the poorly rated privately owned rail bridges that present the greatest risk and have the least transparency.

According to the Federal Rail Administration at least one train “slips off” the tracks every day in the United States.  There are 176,000 Pittsburghers living in the derailment blast zone (74% of whom live in Environmental Justice Areas.)  To date, Pittsburgh has been just plain lucky in terms of not being the locus of a major catastrophe.  We cannot expect to keep playing this game of “Russian Roulette”, and we need to start learning from the lessons previous local derailments have offered.

There are other rail safety fail points that make the next derailment a potential “city killer”.  For example:

•    Human error accounts for the most derailments resulting from both excessive train speed and manual switches being set incorrectly.  The solution is to slow trains carrying hazardous material down below the 40 mph limit currently allowed in urban areas, and to implement Positive Train Control;
•    Substandard infrastructure.  Rail bridges are the most vulnerable point in any rail line.  Currently railroads are permitted to perform their own inspections.  Pressure from the press and our elected representatives will be necessary to enable independent engineers to review the inspection reports and categorize the priority of repairs;
•    Substandard below rail infrastructure.  Many PWSA water and sewer lines (4-6’ in diameter) beneath the rail tracks all along the Pittsburgh Line are over 100 years old, made of hand laid brick whose mortar has degraded from acid rain, and are at the end of their useful life.  Those need to be inspected, replaced or reinforced;
•    Rail line water drainage systems are becoming obsolete and subject to being overwhelmed by our record rainfall.  When that happens the soil under the ballast becomes supersaturated and it shifts taking the rails out of alignment;
•    Bakken crude is volatile because of the gasses it contains.  Railroads save money by shipping the oil and gasses together.  The solution is to stabilize the oil by removing the volatile gasses from Bakken crude before it is loaded onto rail cars;
•    Railroads have control over how much or how little to fill a tank car.  It is necessary to implement and enforce standards against both overloading and under loading tanker cars (which will prevent sloshing) to reduce the likelihood of derailments.

Additional suggestions:

•    Require that there be both disclosure and quantification of derailment impacts and emergency response plans;
•    Require a minimum of two crew members per train, and require that the engineer be tested for sleep apnea;
•    Require safer tank cars because currently CPC-1232 tank cars won’t be fully upgraded to newer safer standards until 2029;
•    Institute both track rail quality standards and the periodic replacement of worn-out tracks.  Currently rail companies self-regulate how far down they can wear their tracks and there are overwhelming examples of compromised safety.  The Federal Rail Administration report investigating the 2018 Southside derailment makes it clear that Norfolk Southern and its third-party inspectors are not inspecting properly and are disregarding the results of their inspections.  Norfolk Southern is installing worn rail with little useful life into its system, running cars with worn wheels, and using third party inspectors who are “disregarding multiple sources of rail inspection information.”  Their “human error” was determined to be a “serious oversight” which contributed to the reason for the derailment.  Of further interest is that the railroad lobby has arranged that none of the findings of any FRA Derailment Report may be used in any civil action for damages.  Read more about it here.
•    Limit the length of hazardous material trains to prevent derailments.  Evidence indicates that most train that have derailed were over 100 cars long;
•    Require Electronically Controlled Pneumatic brakes (ECP) on all /LNG trains.  ECP is a tested technology that offers major benefits in freight train handling, car maintenance, fuel savings and network capacity - all of which significantly enhances rail safety and efficiency.

A bit of history and further explanation about the two braking systems is warranted.

The current air braking systems used on oil and ethanol unit trains are based on technology developed in the 1860s – described in 2016 by the head of the Federal Railroad Administration as “a brake system that is from the Civil War era.”

In an air brake system, the air pressure that stops the engine and the rail cars must travel the full length of the train through the brake pipe.  When you are running one- to three-mile-long trains, this means a significant amount of time is needed to actually engage the brakes across the entire train.

At a National Transportation Safety Board hearing in April 2014, FRA Safety Specialist Richard Connor described the performance of the traditional brakes in an emergency situation as “painfully slow” when compared to ECP response times.  “One of the biggest advantages of ECP is that the signal to apply the brakes is going at the speed of light” to all of the cars at once.

Just like the gun lobby, the rail and petrochemical lobby appear to have sway over our elected representatives.  Thus far our state representatives have failed us.

Other high-rail corridor states including California, New York, New Jersey, Minnesota, Washington, and Oregon all have laws expressly permitted by the federal Oil Pollution Control Act of 1990 (OPA) that:

•    Impose strict liability, in the event of a derailment involving an oil spill or explosion, for all property damage, health costs, lives lost, require the restoration of natural resources, and permit punitive damages.
•    The OPA also allows states to impose fees on oil landed or transferred into the state once it comes off of a rail car. (This was never even challenged by the railroads in California.)
•    In terms of oil spill response planning, it covers more than just the plan, it allows requiring training equipment, communication systems, and qualified officials to coordinate with the first responders.  It also requires cleanup.
States are also allowed to ensure that a railroad is financially responsible either through insurance or the posting of bonds.  The Pennsylvania legislature has provided you with none of these protections.

It must further be recognized that because trains and rail lines cannot be protected, our energy assistance to Europe and Ukraine presents national security issues that must be recognized since rail bridges can be sabotaged and the computer train signals can be hacked in ways that result in the next 9/11 - but with much graver consequences.  Because Pittsburgh is the major route for transporting oil by rail to the East Coast, Pittsburgh is a prime target.
Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh
Copyright © 2022 Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh (RP3), All rights reserved.

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