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The Dalles joins oil train debate

A UNION Pacific freight train runs west along First Street, downtown The Dalles. The City of The Dalles has joined other Oregon and Washington cities in requesting greater federal oversight of oil train transports.

Photo by Mark Gibson
A UNION Pacific freight train runs west along First Street, downtown The Dalles. The City of The Dalles has joined other Oregon and Washington cities in requesting greater federal oversight of oil train transports.

Railroad safety

Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Sante Fe railroad officials weighed in Wednesday on safety issues involving oil trains passing through the gorge.

Aaron Hunt, director of corporate communications for UP, said crude oil unit trains do move through the gorge on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, but he declined to provide specific numbers.

“For contractual reasons, we do not confirm specific information about any one commodity, but we currently move about 20-30 trains daily through the gorge,” he said. “Crude oil shipments on behalf of our customers currently represent about one percent of our business in Oregon. Our business mix is constantly changing but crude oil is currently a small part of our business in Oregon.”

Hunt said UP had invested more than $1 billion to enhance infrastructure in Oregon over the last decade in order to prevent derailments.

He said that work included track replacement and both rail and tie renewal beyond what was required by regulators.

“We have a robust track inspection process in place as well that includes the use of high-end technology, such as lasers and ultrasound, to detect flaws in the rail before a crack can develop,” he said.

Hunt said a trackside sensor also performs a real-time analysis of a car’s condition every time it passes by. That allows UP to spot early signs of potential problems that could cause premature equipment wear or failure. The program equates to about 20 million car evaluations per day.

“BNSF believes that every accident and injury is preventable,” said Courtney Wallace, regional director of public affairs for the railroad.

She said BNSF’s vision and focus has long been on been on preventing accidents in the first place.

“The rail industry as a whole is also very safe and has reduced employee injury rates, train accident rates, and grade crossing collision rates by 80 percent or more since 1980,” said Wallace.

She said BNSF experienced the fewest mainline derailments in its history in 2014, and the Federal Railroad Administration reported that, based on preliminary data, it may have been the safest year for the rail industry as a whole.

Similar reviews were given in 2013.

“We have made this remarkable safety progress in partnership with our employees and by continually investing in new technologies that help make the railroad safer and more efficient,” said Wallace.

Hunt said Rail Corridor Risk Management System touring protocol is applied to trains carrying 20 or more crude oil cars.

That system determines the safest and most secure routes for transports and was developed in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Railroad Administration.

According to a fact sheet provided by UP, the RCRMS takes into account 27 risk factors to assess rail route safety and security. Speeds are also kept down to 40 miles per hour — 10 less than UP’s current self-imposed speed limit — in urban areas when trains are carrying 20 or more crude oil cars.

“This reduced train speed significantly reduced the kinetic energy that contributes to tank car breeches in accidents, without creating a major disruption to America’s rail network,” states the fact sheet.

UP contends that trains carrying oil shipments are provided with superior brakes to increase their stopping power. Because of the safety measure it takes, the company reports a 23 percent reduction in derailments over the last 10 years.

To prepare for the potential of an emergency, UP also offers comprehensive training to hazmat first-responders in communities along railroad tracks. About 2,500 local, state and federal professionals are trained each year on ways to minimize the impact of an emergency.

UP reports that 38,000 public responders and almost 7,500 private responders (shippers and contractors) have received hands-on and classroom training since 2003. The company has a new Emergency Preparedness Network Map gives first-responders an hour-by-hour snapshot of hazardous materials moving on UP track within state boundaries. And an AskRail real-time mobile application is also available that allows first-responders to obtain information about shipments of hazardous materials through their area.

BNSF provides hazardous material traffic flow reports upon request to local emergency responders, elected officials and emergency management administrators.

According to Wallace, BNSF was the first railroad in the industry to deploy a fleet of industrial fire-fighting foam trailers on hazmat routes around its network.

The trailers produce alcohol-resistant foam to extinguish fires involving materials such as ethanol and crude oil by covering the spilled material and depriving it of oxygen.

Wallace said the trailers are made available to local emergency responders. In addition, the company has other specialized spill response equipment and hazmat responders staged across its network. In Oregon, these resources can be found in Portland, Eugene, Klamath Falls, Maupin, Moody and Prineville.

The Dalles City Council has joined Hood River, Mosier and other Oregon towns in urging state officials to pursue greater federal regulation of crude oil transports...

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