Faced with public concern about the risks of crude oil shipments, the Union Pacific railroad last month boosted its rail inspection program on mountain passes in California and the West, dispatching high-tech vehicles with lasers to check tracks for imperfections.
UP officials say they have leased two rail inspection vehicles, called geometry cars, doubling the number of computer-based safety cars in use on the company’s tracks. The move comes amid mounting public concern about hazardous-material shipments, including a growing quantity of highly flammable crude oil from North Dakota being shipped to West Coast refineries.
The inspection cars will supplement similar geometry cars UP owns that it uses to inspect hundreds of miles of tracks daily on the company’s main lines west of the Mississippi River. Running at regular train speeds, the inspection vehicles can detect tiny deviations and wear on rail lines that could cause a derailment if allowed to grow, UP officials said.
The new cars will patrol the main mountain routes into the state, UP officials said. Northern California sites will include Donner Pass, the Feather River Canyon and grades outside Dunsmuir. The state has designated all those areas high hazards for derailments.
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In Southern California, the inspection vehicles will patrol UP’s looping line over the Tehachapi Mountains, as well as the line on the Cuesta grade in San Luis Obispo County. The trains also will check mountain rails in Washington, Oregon, Utah and Nevada.
“We’re ensuring we keep crude oil trains on the track,” said David Wickersham, UP’s chief maintenance engineer in the West. “We are going to time it so we are hitting California every three months.”
State rail safety chief Paul King of the California Public Utilities Commission applauded the move. “It’s easy to maintain a straight (flat) railroad, but it’s not as easy to maintain a curved rail like you find in the mountains,” King said.
Grady Cothen, a retired Federal Railroad Administration safety official, said the type of high-tech inspections cars UP is using have become a must for major railroad companies. With more freight moving through limited rail corridors, especially mountains, the financial and political implications of a major derailment that causes damage are huge for railroads.
“They have every incentive to keep their trains out of the river,” Cothen said.
Over the last five years, UP has suffered about 180 derailments in California, according to the federal government’s rail incident database. Most were minor. Only one caused an injury. But the reportable damage costs to UP were listed at $19 million.
Although derailments per mile have been dropping nationally for decades, concern has skyrocketed in the last year, prompted by major shifts in the oil industry. New hydraulic fracturing technology, commonly called fracking, has led to a boom in crude oil being moved by rail. Several dramatic, explosive derailments have occurred, including one last year that killed 47 people in a Canadian town.
More crude oil shipments are expected in California in the coming years. Oil companies are pursuing plans that would bring daily trains through downtown Sacramento to refineries in Benicia, Santa Maria and possibly Bakersfield.
Federal officials are calling for a host of safety changes for crude oil shipments, including stronger tanker cars, reduced train speeds, better braking systems, computerized train controls and rail-route risk assessments.
“The challenges of crude oil (rail transport) mean we have to rethink everything that we have historically done in order to get to the next generation of safety,” Federal Railroad Administration chief Joe Szabo told The Sacramento Bee on a visit to Sacramento last month. “We are really focusing on prevention, mitigation and the third step, emergency response.
“But you really want the highest focus on prevention. Let’s prevent accidents from happening to begin with.”
Forty-five percent of derailments nationally are caused by track problems, such as broken or missing cross ties, or worn rails at track junctions, federal data show. The remaining 55 percent involve a combination of factors, mainly human error, but also train equipment failure, signal malfunctions and other issues.
In California, the state PUC plans to increase its track-inspection workforce in the coming months, and has formed a Crude Oil Reconnaissance Team to review rail tracks that are being used or will be used for crude oil transports. But state and federal rail safety officials admit they largely rely on the railroads to self-police. Most state and federal track inspectors, in fact, serve mainly in an auditing role, checking in on railroad companies’ inspection programs.
UP – the biggest freight railroad west of the Mississippi, with 32,000 miles of mainline tracks – and other railroad companies typically disclose little about in-house activities, leaving government officials questioning if railroads are taking proper steps to protect the public from oil and other hazardous waste spills. UP and BNSF sued the state this month in an attempt to nullify a new state law that requires the railroads, among other things, to submit to the state their plans for responses to waterway spills.
The company, however, gave The Bee a glimpse last week into a key part of its inspection program, allowing a reporter and photographer to ride on one of UP’s high-tech inspection cars as it analyzed the tracks between Roseville and Marysville. The vehicle was on an inspection run that day from Roseville to Klamath Falls, Ore.
The bright yellow car is a self-propelled rolling office and computer lab, although it is often pulled by a locomotive. Several inspectors sat at each end of the vehicle at banks of computers, reading live data streaming from sensors mounted under the vehicle as it rolled at 53 mph west of Lincoln on the line known as the Valley Subdivision. The sensors can detect tiny deviations, such as rail alignment and height, or rail head wear. Rails that show wear or defects are noted. Some are marked for near-term replacement or repair. Other issues are put on a watch list.
The inspection car weighs 100 tons, which allows it to assess the rails when they have nearly as much vertical and horizontal pressure on them as all but the heaviest freight cars impose. Grain and coal cars can weigh as much as 140 tons. Full crude oil cars are nearly as heavy, weighing 134 tons, UP officials said.
“This car finds things the naked eye can’t find,” said Wickersham, UP’s regional maintenance chief. He pointed to one of a series of undulating lines on a pair of computer monitors in front of him. Each line shows deviations from the norm. “Here is a spot of alignment the car picked up at milepost 111, plus 2,500 feet,” showing a rail section that is slightly out of alignment. “That is one of those locations that our manager of track maintenance for the area will fix within 30 days.”
UP officials say the company has spent $1.4 billion in California on track upgrades between 2009 and 2013, including replacing a quarter of its ties, the wooden beams that connect the two rails, every eight years. Many of the new ties, especially in the mountains, are concrete.
The company employs 43 track inspectors in California. That includes people who drive pickup trucks on the tracks, essentially clamped onto the rails, doing visual inspections and follow-up reviews after the inspection cars come through.
The state’s second-largest freight rail company, BNSF, said in an email that it also takes rail inspection seriously, using geometry vehicles up to six times annually on key routes, as well as radar to inspect for problems under the rail’s ballast, and ultrasound to find other hidden weaknesses.
“It’s not rocket science,” said UP’s Wickersham, “but it’s technical. This is not your great-great-grandfather’s railroad.”
Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.