Expert assesses risk of oil train accident in Pennsylvania
With as many as 70 oil trains rumbling across Pennsylvania each week, the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday released a series of recommendations meant to reduce the risk of a catastrophic derailment, including reduced speeds through cities, beefed-up track inspections and a call for trackside communities to plan for an emergency.
Wolf has expressed “grave concern” about the trains’ safety in the wake of several fiery crashes. CSX and Norfolk Southern carry huge volumes of crude through Pennsylvania to refineries in Philadelphia and elsewhere.
The crude, from the Bakken Shale region of North Dakota, is unusually volatile. A train carrying Bakken crude derailed in Quebec two years ago, causing a fire and explosion that killed 47 people and leveled the downtown.
Wolf hired Allan Zarembski, a University of Delaware professor and a specialist in railroad engineering and safety, to identify areas of high risk and to issue safety recommendations. Zarembski’s report, released Monday, contains 27 recommendations, primarily focused on inspection and maintenance of tracks and equipment, routing, speed and emergency planning.
CSX and Norfolk Southern already follow many of the best practices identified in the report.
“Several of my recommendations are aimed at taking what they’re doing and intensifying it,” Zarembski told reporters on a conference call. “The question is, Can we get the railroads to do it at a level where we think we can reduce the risk further?”
In a statement, Norfolk, Virginia-based Norfolk Southern said it is already increasing inspections of tracks that carry oil trains and is taking other measures that show its “strong commitment to safety and to the communities through which we operate.”
Jacksonville, Florida-based CSX said it will review Zarembski’s recommendations, noting the railroad “has made significant investments in the routes we use to transport crude oil.”
Neither railroad has heeded Wolf’s request to slow its oil trains to 35 mph through Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which John Hanger, the governor’s policy chief, called disappointing.
The federal government, which has primary responsibility for regulating railroads, has mandated a 40 mph speed limit through cities with populations of at least 100,000. But at least one railroad, BNSF Railway, which operates in the West, has committed to a 35 mph limit in major urban areas, and Zarembski said it would be a good idea in Pennsylvania.
Hanger, who joined Zarembski on Monday’s call, said Wolf would continue to press for speed-limit reductions. But CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle said the railroad believes its “current approaches to ensuring the safety of crude oil and all freight strikes the right balance.”
Zarembski’s report also included a to-do list for state officials.
He said the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency should conduct a wide-scale emergency response exercise with communities along the tracks, ensure that those communities have their own emergency plans and obtain an inventory of the railroads’ firefighting supplies. And, he said, the state should focus its railroad inspections on major crude-oil routes.
Hanger said the administration is already following up.
“Protecting Pennsylvanians is my top priority and Dr. Zarembski’s report is important in helping my administration take the necessary steps,” Wolf said in a statement. “I will also continue to work with CSX and Norfolk Southern, both of which have demonstrated concern for rail safety and an interest in working with my administration.”