Carriers weigh routing oil trains around cities in Pennsylvania

The two major rail haulers of crude oil in Pennsylvania are weighing routing trains carrying the commodity around Pittsburgh, the governor’s independent rail expert said Monday as he unveiled wide-ranging safety recommendations.

“I am aware of the fact that there are options, and the railroads are looking at options of re-routing trains around Pittsburgh,” said Allan Zarembski, a University of Delaware research professor hired in April to advise Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf on crude-by-rail policy. He declined to elaborate, citing that the rail companies were still conducting assessments.

CSX Corp. and Norfolk Southern Railway, the predominant haulers of crude oil through Pennsylvania, have not said whether they plan to change routes.

Safety experts have called for companies to send trains around heavily populated areas following a string of fiery derailments in recent years, including an explosion in 2013 that killed 47 people in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. More recently, an oil train jumped the tracks near Charleston, W.Va., and forced the evacuation of 100 people.

Every week, roughly 60 to 70 trains carrying up to 3 million gallons of crude oil each travel through Pennsylvania, destined for refineries in Philadelphia and elsewhere on the East Coast, according to state figures. A boom in production in the Bakken Shale of North Dakota has put more oil on the rails as an alternative to pipelines, which haven’t been built in that rural area.

Jeffrey Sheridan, the governor’s spokesman, emphasized after a conference call on the report that questions about re-routing trains should be directed to the companies. Federal rules published in May require rail carriers to select routes for high-hazard flammable trains based on a calculation of risk including more than two dozen safety factors.

“Dr. Zarembski was simply saying that the routing is dependent on this analysis,” Mr. Sheridan said in an email. “He was not inferring that CSX and Norfolk Southern are re-routing trains.”

A spokesman with CSX declined to comment, saying the company doesn’t discuss routing details of hazardous materials for security reasons. A spokesman with Norfolk Southern did not immediately return calls seeking comment, but in a press release the company said it looks forward to “further conversations with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to review productive ways to make our safe system even safer.”

Mr. Wolf hired Mr. Zarembski in April to evaluate the state’s freight rail network and operations. Mr. Zarembski was paid $38,000 for three months of work that culminated in Monday’s 84-page report.

The report listed 27 suggestions aimed at both state agencies and railroad operators to tighten inspections of track and equipment along crude oil routes. In the conference call with reporters, Mr. Zarembski acknowledged that regulatory authority lies solely with the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration and that “railroad practices in general almost always go beyond the minimum safety standards” adopted by federal regulators.

“Several of my recommendations are aimed at taking what [rail companies] are doing and intensifying it,” he said.

He also pressed the Public Utility Commission, which employs six inspectors in its rail division that covers various aspects of rail operations, to fill two vacant positions and potentially hire one more inspector.

The PUC is currently reviewing candidates for those two positions, PUC spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen said. Of more than 5,000 miles of freight rail lines statewide, the PUC focuses on the roughly 700 miles that carry hazardous materials, he said.

“We appreciate the report highlights these issues as a concern, but from an operational practice point of view, we’ve been working with our inspectors to focus on the majority of those things already,” Mr. Hagen-Frederiksen said.

Despite the state’s limited authority, Mr. Wolf has been vocal on the crude-by-rail issue since taking office in January, meeting with CSX and Norfolk Southern executives and asking the companies to voluntarily implement a host of safety practices.

The results have been unclear.

In May, the governor asked the state’s major rail carriers to reduce speed limits to 35 mph through cities of at least 100,000 people, down from the current limit of 40 mph, but had no success.

“Up to this point, the communication we’ve received from Norfolk Southern and CSX is disappointing — in other words, they have not agreed to adopt” the lower speed limits, said John Hanger, the governor’s secretary for planning and policy.

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

First Published August 17, 2015 10:38 AM

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