Gov. Wolf presses rail companies to voluntarily tighten safety standards

Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday appealed directly to the two major railroads that transport crude oil through Pennsylvania to implement a wide range of additional, more stringent safety standards to reduce the risk of derailments.

In a letter to Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX Transportation, Mr. Wolf pointed to four safety initiatives rolled out this year by BNSF Railway, which hauls crude oil through the Pacific Northwest.

“In view of your demonstrated concern for rail safety and your interest in working with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in increasing rail safety, I request that you join BNSF in adopting its improved safety initiatives,” the governor wrote.

BNSF, which does not have lines in the eastern United States, has lowered speed limits to 35 mph for all oil trains traveling through municipalities with populations of 100,000 or more, the governor’s letter said. The Fort Worth, Texas-based company also has increased rail inspection frequencies along crude oil routes.


In the letter, Mr. Wolf also asked the companies to “expeditiously comply” with six aspects of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s final rule released earlier this month.

Norfolk Southern, based in Norfolk, Va., and CSX in Jacksonville, Fla., together move about 60 to 70 crude oil trains each day through Pennsylvania, according to data reported by the companies to the state.

Since his term began in January, Mr. Wolf has been aggressive in expressing concern over a string of high-profile rail incidents involving crude oil, including an explosive derailment near Charleston, W.Va., in February.

Shipments through Pennsylvania have grown significantly since 2008 as a shale oil boom in North Dakota has sent more of the volatile commodity to refineries on the East Coast.

With the bulk of regulatory power solely with federal officials, Mr. Wolf’s strategy has included meeting with executives from Norfolk Southern and CSX to discuss how to lower the risk of derailments; writing a letter to President Barack Obama urging his administration to increase federal oversight of the rail industry; and, most recently, hiring Allan Zarembski, a rail safety expert from the University of Delaware, to advise the governor on the crude-by-rail issue.

In the letter to the rail companies, the Democratic governor asked them to “fully cooperate” with Mr. Zarembski’s stated objective of, over the next three months, evaluating Pennsylvania’s freight rail system and compiling recommendations on how to improve safety standards.

Mr. Zarembski, speaking on a conference call with reporters Tuesday, said he would be parsing three ingredients of every catastrophic accident: the derailment, the rupture of the tank car, and the volatility of the crude oil. “We’re going to be looking at these elements independently to see whether there’s an opportunity to work with the railroads to tighten up on either inspection techniques or other operating techniques that can reduce the risk of derailments on these crude-by-rail routes,” he said.

He used BNSF’s lower speed limits as an example.

“We do know from the various research that’s been done that lowering speeds will further reduce risk of a breach in the event of a derailment,” he said.

Both Norfolk Southern and CSX, in separate statements, pledged to work with Pennsylvania officials. CSX “appreciates Gov. Wolf's continued focus and attention on these important issues,” spokesman Rob Doolittle said in a statement.

David Pidgeon, spokesman for Norfolk Southern, said the railroad company is “committed to working with Gov. Wolf and others on ways to continuously make our safe system even safer.”

Mr. Pidgeon added that Norfolk Southern “strongly advocated for tougher tank car standards and voluntarily adopted additional safety measures that go well beyond regulatory requirements.”

Railroad companies often note they do not own or manufacture the rail cars they move, even though the cars may carry their insignia.

Daniel Moore:, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.

First Published May 19, 2015 1:38 PM

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