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Dangerous Cargo Rides the Rails: Tracks & Inspections

City of Lynchburg

Within hours of a rail crash in Lynchburg on April 30, inspectors for the state and federal governments and CSX were on the scene – trying to figure out why 17 cars derailed and one ruptured – producing flames, smoke and a significant oil spill. 

Getting official answers could take 18 months, but there are clues that suggest a cause for the accident and a future course of action to improve rail safety. 

This section of rail that parallels the banks of the James River through Lynchburg is part of a huge network in Virginia – 3,200 miles of track owned by two of the nation’s largest railroads, CSX and Norfolk Southern.  They’re responsible for inspecting their tracks every 30 days, and CSX Vice President Bryan Rhode says his company spends plenty keeping the rails here and in other states in shape.

“This year alone we estimate that we’ll invest about $2.3 billion into our rail network.  We average about 16-17% of revenue reinvested into the company, which – to give some perspective – is about five times what an average manufacturer puts back into a company.”

All told, major railroads say they invest $25 billion a year to maintain and upgrade their tracks, but Patrick Corp, State Legislative Director for the union representing conductors and engineers says more should be done, and the nation will need to chip in if we expect state-of-the-art rail safety.

“You can look at a rail line that was built in the late 1800s.  It’s in the same spot it was when they laid it, but you look at the highway next to it, and you got a four-lane interstate next to it now, not the old dirt track. 

The trucking industry, if you look on 81, is just subsidized to the point where they just continue to take that freight off the rail, which causes the rail industry to contract, so now this is where we are.”

The National Transportation Safety Board is testing sections of track from Lynchburg, but a couple of days before the accident, inspectors had been there, and maintenance was scheduled.  With 14,000 tons of freight moving through every day, experts say the rails develop tiny cracks, not visible to the naked eye. 

Hi-tech equipment will show that, but no one knows when those cracks will cause the track to fail, so it’s hard to say how soon it needs to be replaced.  Federal Railway Administrator Joe Szabo says it may be necessary to replace track more quickly and more often.

"The bar has to be raised.   This is a new day in hauling this crude oil, and so this isn’t a point now where we’re just spilling a little bit of grain or spilling a little bit of coal.  We have to reach a point of perfection."

Industry veterans scoff at the suggestion that perfection is possible, but they say it would be safer to ban so-called unit trains of at least a hundred cars – each carrying the same flammable cargo.  It’s common practice for railroads to intersperse cars carrying gasoline or ethanol with freight that’s not hazardous, and the same could be done with Bakken crude.

Others think it’d be safer to transport oil by pipeline, but energy reporter Marianne Lavelle says it would take a long time to create the capacity needed.

"The Keystone Xcel has room for about 100,000 barrels a day of North Dakota crude.  Already, 700,000 barrels a day are going on rail + You can imagine how many pipelines they would have to build.  It looks like as long as that oil boom is going on, there’s going to be a lot of crude by rail."

What’s more, pipelines can rupture and spill.  They’re expensive to build, and they lock producers into supplying certain areas.  Current lines lead from North Dakota to refineries in the Midwest and the Gulf Coast, but prices are better along the Atlantic and Pacific, so the oil industry will insist on continued access to rails.  In our next report, we’ll look at another group that could finally influence regulators and lawmakers – the public.  

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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