Energy. Environment. Economy.

Pennsylvania lawmakers seek answers on oil train safety

State Public Utilities Commission chair Gladys Brown told lawmakers she'd like to hire more inspectors, however her agency has limited authority over rail safety.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

State Public Utilities Commission chair Gladys Brown told lawmakers she'd like to hire more inspectors, however her agency has limited authority over rail safety.

As the shipment of oil by train has skyrocketed in Pennsylvania and around the nation, lawmakers in Harrisburg want to weigh in on safety issues. Unfortunately they have little authority, since the rail industry is regulated almost exclusively by the federal government.

Every week between 60-70 trains carrying crude oil from North Dakota travel through Pennsylvania. The state has had four oil train derailments since the beginning of last year, but none have led to the deadly accidents and explosions seen elsewhere.

At a state senate hearing on oil train safety Tuesday, Public Utilities Commission (PUC) chair Gladys Brown noted that her agency has just 15 inspectors to monitor 5,600 miles of track.

“We would like to increase the number of inspectors,” she told senators. “We know there’s a lot of factors in terms of the types of training they need, but funding is also a big factor.”

But even with more inspectors, the PUC only has authority over at-grade railroad crossings. It also can’t impose fines. That’s handled by the Federal Railroad Administration.

Governor Tom Wolf also recently hired a rail expert to evaluate safety risks, and sent a letter to two major railroads urging them to adopt voluntary safety standards. In his testimony before the committee, Rudy Husband of Norfolk Southern said industry is already working on it.

“We aren’t waiting for experts to come in to tell us how we need to improve safety,” he said. “We’re not waiting for letters from the governor to tell us to improve safety. We are working constantly.”

U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D) is also backing legislation that would levy a fee on oil train tank cars, in an effort to fund emergency training and cleanup costs. In May the federal Department of Transportation announced new rules for oil trains, which will phase out the current tank cars, implement stronger tank car standards, and require upgraded braking systems.


  • Ron Schalow

    “When energy companies started extracting oil from shale formations in South Texas a few years ago, they invested hundreds of millions of dollars to make the volatile crude safer to handle.

    In North Dakota’s Bakken Shale oil field, nobody installed the necessary equipment. The result is that the second-fastest growing source of crude in the U.S. is producing oil that pipelines often would reject as too dangerous to transport.

    Now the decision not to build the equipment is coming back to haunt the oil industry as the federal government seeks to prevent fiery accidents of trains laden with North Dakota oil. Investigators probing crude-by-rail accidents, including one a year ago that killed 47 people in Quebec, are trying to determine why shale oil has proved so combustible—a question that has taken on growing urgency as rail shipments rise.

    Only one stabilizer, which can remove the most volatile gases before transport, has been built in North Dakota and it hasn’t begun operation, according to a review by The Wall Street Journal.

    Stabilizers use heat and pressure to force light hydrocarbon molecules—including ethane, butane and propane—to form into vapor and boil out of the liquid crude. The operation can lower the vapor pressure of crude oil, making it less volatile and therefore safer to transport by pipeline or rail tank car.”–Wall Street Journal

  • Paul E. Wulterkens

    Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin co sponsors legislation that would force immediate retirement or retrofitting of unsafe oil tank cars, compel removed of volatile gases from crude oil before it is loaded, and providing immediate funding to train and equip first responders to cope with an oil train disaster.

    The railroads and refineries team up to respond to emergencies in Washington state. Firefighters in Colorado train to respond to a Bakken crude blowup.

    Wisconsin citizens sue their own DNR for improperly letting the railroad go ahead on constructing another oil train line.

    Minnesota citizens oppose a pipeline that would carry Bakken crude because it endangers aquifers. Their PUC approved the pipeline but did not settle on the route, allowing more time to address safety concerns.

    A New Jersey railroad bridge, seriously deteriorated, is described in a report as needing only routine maintenance.

    While cities around the country are banning fracking, the states of Texas and Oklahoma do not allow their cities to enact fracking bans.

    While the FRA is aggressively pursuing railroad crossing safety and insisting on timely implementation of simultaneous vs. one-car-at-a-time braking it needs to increase the scope and intensity of car and rail inspections, especially on hazmat routes through urban areas. Preventing derailments is the first line of defense against calamity, not pipelines, which are even more hazardous to the environment and water than trains, and whose reliance on eminent domain is increasingly rancorous politically.

    Meanwhile, oil train accidents have risen from 1 in 2009 to 144 in 2014. It is no time to be complacent.

    Sign the attached petition urging the FRA to vigorously enforce railroad health and safety regulations. Add a comment while you’re ato it to counter the railroad lobbies’ unrelenting trust-us-we-know-what-we’re-doing cant.

  • Paul E. Wulterkens

    Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, lawmakers, whose state is crossed by 60 to 70 oil trains per day, want to weigh in on railroad safety, but they have little clout since the federal government regulates the railroads. Four derailments this year have not caused injury or explosions. Only 15 state inspectors monitor the state’s 5600 miles of track.
    The state has hired a railroad expert to advise it on safety measures but the railroads say they do not need expert advice, since safety is always on their minds.
    Senator Casey has proposed a fee on oil tank cars to fund first responder training and cleanup costs. The DOT has put out new rules to retire or upgrade tank cars and install simultaneous braking on them rather than today’s stop one-at-a-time system.
    The Federal Railroad Administration plays the important role of enforcing railroad health and safety regulations. The attached petition is to let them know that the public supports, nay, demands, strict enforcement. The FRA gets most of its input from railroad lobbyists, so it needs to hear from us. Please sign the petition and add a comment at

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