February 22, 2024
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February 22, 2024
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Going Off-the-Rails: Rail Safety Is on Agenda

Bergen County is in the cross-hairs of a serious problem because as many as 30 CSX rail line trains transit the county each week. People living near railroad tracks face a dangerous dilemma as those trains carry massive amounts of oil and flammable and toxic materials within a few hundred yards of homes, parks, synagogues, and schools in Teaneck, Bergenfield, Englewood, and other densely populated areas.

“Rail safety is one of the most pressing transportation challenges right now for New Jersey,” U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) told JLNJ. “From the spike in crude oil shipments through Bergen County to the ongoing consequences of the vinyl chloride leak in Paulsboro, it’s clear that we need a comprehensive update of our nation’s rail safety laws.”

The last Congress introduced the Toxic by Rail Accountability and Community Knowledge Act to create penalties for railroads that violate safety standards and to improve risk assessment and emergency response for all hazardous material shipped by rail—whether it’s crude oil, vinyl chloride or any other chemical that’s toxic to human health and public safety. It did not go through.

“I intend to reintroduce this legislation in the coming months and will push for its inclusion as Congress works to reauthorize our rail safety programs. I’m also closely monitoring the DOT’s progress toward finalizing new standards for high-hazard flammable trains, including crude oil trains.”

Rails running through the county have been in place for so many years that any observer watching a train passing by can see them lift and drop as each car goes by. Rail ties are often rotted, providing little support for trains and a walk along much of the right-of-way shows spikes loose and in some cases on the ground instead of securing rails. Fears were heightened a week ago when an oil train derailed in West Virginia in a flaming wreck requiring the evacuation of homes and businesses.

With each tanker car holding up to 30,000 gallons of oil or ethanol and the potential for a crash or derailment to ignite an entire train, the explosive impact on an area is virtually incalculable.

Bergen County Executive James Tedesco III, expressed concern about the lines coming through the county. “I will continue to advocate for development and implementation of legislation regarding the transport of highly flammable oil,” Tedesco told JLNJ. “I’ll work closely with local officials and emergency responders to ensure the safety of our county residents.”

Tedesco said that one of his priorities would be to make sure that emergency responders would have all the training and equipment they need in the event of such a disaster.

The deteriorating condition of the tracks is only one of myriad problems created by the trains. When many of the rail lines were laid, the areas they passed through were rural or farmland and posed little to no danger to people along the route. Over the passing decades populations burgeoned and farmland became cities and towns.

The trains themselves, much like their floating tanker ships cousins that transport oil by sea, are vulnerable to rupture. While some of the floating tankers are double-hulled, most of the rail cars are not. Their single-skin tanks rupture easily in the event of an accident, causing oil to spill or burst into flames.

“Phasing out older tank cars is one important step,” Menendez said. “But as we saw in the recent West Virginia accident, newer tanks alone are not enough to ensure the safety of our communities. We need to examine the issue of haz-mat-by-rail holistically. I look forward to continuing to work with the DOT and my colleagues in Congress to ensure a comprehensive approach that looks broadly at rail safety for all types of hazardous materials to protect our rail communities.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) estimates that an accident in a densely populated area could kill more than 200 people while causing $6 billion in damage. The DOT analysis contends that such an accident is unlikely. But “unlikely” is not “impossible.”

The analysis notes that the trains transit communities with an average population density of close to 300 people per square kilometer, placing some 16 million Americans in harm’s way. That number of people, according to the DOT, lives within 550 yards of the rail lines.

A spokesman for the Association of American Railroads expressed ignorance of the DOT analysis and had no comment to JLNJ on the projections for potential derailments. DOT has predicted the possibility of 15 oil train derailments a year, hopefully declining to five in the next two decades. They estimate that each year there will be 900,000 carloads of oil, each carrying 30,000 gallons, passing along the routes. That’s a potential 27 million gallons of flammable fuel that could also make a viable target for terrorists.

The problem is complicated by the need to transport oil to refineries on the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. To do so the trains travel through major metropolitan areas, including Newark. That means the trains must travel through the heart of Bergen County.

In the past nine years, according to the DOT, there have been 21 such oil train accidents in the U.S. and Canada. In addition there were 33 ethanol derailments. These involved fire and major spills.

That being said, the overall safety record has improved. Over the last 10 years the number of accidents dropped from an annual rate of more than 3,000 to less than 2,000 as of two years ago. That is small consolation to the millions who live and work near the remaining 2,000 accidents.

Rail lines have voluntarily reduced the speed of these trains to 40 miles an hour in urban areas and there is consideration to drop it yet another 10 mph.

While consideration is also being given to beef up the structure of the cars themselves, that won’t prevent derailments or collisions, though it may reduce the probability of a spill. The early February incident in which a woman’s car stalled on the train tracks in Valhalla, NY was a prime example of the impossibility of predicting what will happen. That accident took six lives.

Congressman Bill Pascrell told JLNC, “While there have been steps taken to protect public health and our environment, we must continue to look at rail safety standards to ensure all necessary precautions are being taken to ensure the safety of communities in Bergen County and beyond.”

By Bob Nesoff

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