Report: Oil Trains Crossing Rusted, Crumbling Bridges

Nov 10, 2015

Credit WAMC Photo by Pat Bradley

A survey of 250 oil train bridges across America found that almost half showed signs of deterioration.

Waterkeeper Alliance and ForestEthics have released what they claim is a “first-of-its-kind'” investigative report entitled  "DEADLY CROSSING: Neglected Bridges & Exploding Oil Trains.” They say the report highlights significant public safety threats to communities and waterways from oil trains traveling over neglected infrastructure, including specific calls to action to address the dangerous practice.

Waterkeeper Alliance Staff Attorney Larissa Liebmann co-authored the report, driven by a 5,000 percent increase in U.S. oil train traffic since 2008.    "The Department of Transportation predicts that we will see an average of 10 oil train accidents per year for the next two decades. We also are sad to report that, as of this Sunday, we have to update the number of oil train disasters that have happened in 2015 from five to seven, after two different oil trains derailed and spilled in Wisconsin."

The activist groups began inspecting rail bridges in July.   "Through the inspections, waterkeepers in 15 states inspected 250 rail bridges on known or potential oil train routes. Waterkeeper found that 46 percent, 114 rail bridges, showed signs of deterioration noticeable with the naked eye."

There are no federal engineering standards for rail bridges.

Credit Waterkeeper Alliance

The paper features photographs of three highly deteriorated bridges within the WAMC region: one in Kingston over the Rondout Creek is surrounded by residential areas and marinas. It has concrete support structures that are eroded at the base, as well as rusted and corroded steel structural elements.   Another spans the Hudson North of West Point, west of Cold Spring. Its concrete is also badly eroded.  When trains travel over the bridge there is evidence of repeated vertical displacement, or flexing, of rail bed components, according to the report.

In the Albany area, a bridge over the Normans Kill shows extensive cracking and major deterioration of concrete, with large chunks missing on the bases of the bridge footings. Cracks and missing concrete are also said to be observable on structures supporting the rail bed. The paper warns that a derailment on this bridge could threaten Port of Albany commerce.

Albany County Executive Dan McCoy, a vocal critic of shipping crude oil by train, calls the report "troubling" and adds "The photos of the bridge over the Normans Kill illustrate the severity of the problem."   

Rail carrier CSX did not immediately return a call for comment.

Last spring, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer launched a push to increase the number of federal railroad bridge safety specialists nationwide.  "There's just one inspector assigned to over 3,000 train bridges across New York state. And guess what? That inspector is not only responsible for the 3,000 bridges in New York state, but bridges in 13 other states."

There are seven inspectors nationwide, and Schumer says it would take them 100 years to audit all of the nation’s thousands of rail bridges.

The link to the full NYSDOT November 2014 railroad bridge inventory, referenced by Schumer, can be found by clicking here.

County Executive McCoy has repeatedly called on U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to hasten changes in rules governing the transport of crude oil including tanker replacements, stabilization of crude oil prior to its transport, notification of flammable materials being transported by rail prior to their passage through localities and the implementation of Positive Train Control as soon as possible.

“Clearly the safety regime instituted by the federal government is not workable in theory or in practice,” said McCoy. “I have grave concerns with this self-regulation as envisioned by the government and we need to make it clear to the federal government that these policies are not working. I will be doing that in short order.”

Meanwhile, Albany County is preparing to file a brief in U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in an action brought by Earthjustice and other environmental organizations against the U.S. Secretary of Transportation challenging the adequacy of the final rules promulgated by the secretary earlier this year regarding oil by rail safety measures.