Home / Energy / CMU, Fractracker teaming up to monitor crude oil trains through region

CMU, Fractracker teaming up to monitor crude oil trains through region

Trains carrying millions of gallons of crude oil from Midwestern shale oil fields pass through the region daily and at speeds approaching the limit established to reduce derailment risks, according to a pilot study by Fractracker Alliance and Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab.

The study counted 360 tanker cars bearing the Department of Transportation “1075” and “1267” flammable oil and gas placards on 10 trains passing through the city during 11 daylight hours on Oct. 21. Six of those 10 trains were traveling east with a total of 176 full tanker cars The other four were traveling west with 84 empty tanker cars.

The train spotting and rail car counting was done on Norfolk Southern’s Fort Wayne line, which runs along the Ohio River through Sewickley, Glenfield, Ben Avon, Avalon and the North Side. The study, conducted on just one of seven rail freight lines used by oil trains in Allegheny County, is the first to count the number of oil trains passing through, and there are plans to do several more.

The Fractracker news release about the study states that by tracking and monitoring the transport of oil and gas, “we can begin to understand the risks that these trains pose should an incident occur.”

“We want to study the oil trains issue in several ways across Pennsylvania and beyond, examining the communities and populations affected and evaluating the scale and dynamics of the train traffic, including speeds and volumes of cargo,” said Samantha Malone, a Fractracker spokeswoman.

The count totals are generally in line with estimated oil train numbers for the county provided by Norfolk Southern and CSX to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, information that PEMA was ordered to release in October after a Right to Know request by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Ms. Malone said almost all of the trains were moving “very quickly” past the train spotting and counting location along Norfolk Southern tracks at Riverside Park, on Dawson Avenue in Glenfield. One, heading east with a load of full crude oil tank cars, was traveling much faster than the others at an estimated speed of 50 mph.

Related: Non-profit launches oil and gas tracking app.

If accurate, that train violated the 40 mph speed limit cooperatively established in July for safety by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Association of American Railroads in urban areas after several recent derailments involving crude oil tanker cars.

“We didn’t have a radar gun, but most of the trains were traveling faster than I would think would be safe for that area,” Ms. Malone said. “The one moving very fast I do believe was unsafe.”

A spokesman for Norfolk Southern, however, disputed that contention, saying it was “guesswork” and that the railroad complies with all state and federal rules and regulations.

As rail transport of shale oil and gases has increased over the last five years, the number of derailments has increased, too, along with concerns about the dangers the trains pose to towns and cities along their routes.

Oil train derailments, sometimes causing explosions and fires, have occurred in the last two years in Virginia, North Dakota, Georgia, Philadelphia and Vandergrift. The worst was the 2013 derailment of 74 tanker cars carrying crude from the Bakken Shale oil play in North Dakota that killed 47 people and destroyed 30 buildings in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

Seventy percent of the tankers wore the DOT 1267 placard, used for “Petroleum Crude Oil, Flammable liquid.” The rest had DOT 1075 placards indicating they contained “butane, liquefied petroleum gas, Flammable liquid”

The longest train bearing the “1267” placard, running east, was hauling 97 full crude oil tanker cars with a total capacity of between 2.5 million and 3.4 million gallons of crude oil, according to the release.

David Pidgeon, a Norfolk Southern spokesman, released a statement saying the railroad doesn’t comment about the routing of specific commodities, like crude oil or gas, and declined comment on the study findings. He called the train speeding allegation “speculation and guesswork.”

“What I can say is that we are in compliance with state and federal regulations and are providing important information and training to first responders,” he wrote in the email statement. “That’s a critical part of operating a safe rail network.”

Henry Posner III, chairman of Railroad Development Corp., a rail industry investment firm, said the high-density freight lines passing through the city are well-maintained and, recent accidents not withstanding, the railroads have a “culture of safety.”

“There is no motivation for the trains to speed, and I’ve never seen it (speeding) permitted in my career,” said Mr. Posner, who has worked in various capacities in the railroad industry since 1977. “No one is going to put their job on the line to speed. It’s just not a part of our culture.”

Ms. Malone said Fractracker, in partnership with CMU’s CREATE Lab, will continue to collect rail shipping data from other states and regions to determine where the crude oil tank cars rolling through Pittsburgh are originating.

Working again with volunteer train spotters from the Group Against Smog and Pollution, Three Rivers Waterkeeper, and Women for a Healthy Environment, the Create Lab and Fractracker plan to conduct additional train tank car counts to confirm their initial count is representative of the train traffic going through the region. She said some of those counts will be held overnight, when some residents of the Glenfield area say trains are more numerous.

Top transportation officials from Canada and the United States are due to meet next week to hash out differences about safety regulations for trains that carry oil, sources familiar with the planned meeting told Reuters.

Both governments are drafting safety rules for trains that move fuel from North Dakota’s Bakken energy patch to refineries.