Crude oil trains make daily crossings
By Michael Turton
A railway bridge located on the Hudson River across from Cold Spring has visibly deteriorated however its owner says it remains fit for daily use by freight trains. The bridge is located at milepost 51 on the River Line, a 132-mile stretch of track that runs from northern New Jersey to Selkirk, New York, just south of Albany. The bridge and the tracks are owned by the Florida-based CSX Corporation. At the bridge, the tracks are located just a few feet from the riverbank.
The span in question, along with a second bridge a few hundred yards to the south, crosses over a pair of narrow channels that enable waters from a wetland located west of the tracks to flow in and out freely as river levels change due to tides, wind and rain. Concrete that forms a part of the bridge’s structure has crumbled beneath a vertical support directly under the tracks.
In an email to The Paper, CSX Spokesperson Kristin Seay, said that the bridge is “current” with regard to its annual inspection. “It was last inspected on Feb. 6, 2014, and was determined to be safe for railroad operations.” Seay said that all CSX bridges are inspected annually.
The bridge to the south also shows signs of deterioration but to a lesser extent. On that structure, concrete has fallen away, exposing the reinforcing metal bar.
Oil transport by rail on the rise
The condition of tracks and bridges along the Hudson River has become more significant locally as part of a national trend which has seen an exponential increase in the transport of crude oil and other hazardous materials by rail in recent years. On July 23, 2014, USA Today reported that “The number of oil-carrying cars run by seven major U.S. railroads jumped from 9,500 in 2008 to 407,761 in 2013…” Closer to home, Seay told The Paper that “CSX operates an average of two to three loaded crude oil trains per day over (the River Line) route…” That adds up to between 700 and 1,000 crude-oil trains that pass directly across from Philipstown each year.
Two high profile, rail-related tragedies that occurred in recent months no doubt add to local concern. Last July, in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, a train loaded with oil exploded, killing 47 people. Local insurance claims were estimated at $50 million. And in May of this year, a train derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia, dumping some 50,000 gallons of crude oil into the James River.
A July 23 editorial in the Albany Times Union underscored what it called “failure of government to adequately ensure rail safety” as evidenced by such accidents.
Freight rail lines in the U.S. are regulated almost entirely at the federal level by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). Federal law requires that all railroad companies inspect their own bridges on an annual basis — regardless of the size of the bridge. Companies must determine the load capacity of each bridge, certifying to the state where it is located that it is capable of bearing the daily load it must handle.
On July 23, the Federal Department of Transportation proposed comprehensive rules to improve crude oil transportation safety. Recommendations include an immediate phasing out of older tank cars, new standards for tanker cars that carry highly hazardous materials, reduced operating speeds, and required notification of first responders.
At the state level, the New York State Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Rail Safety Inspection Section participates in FRA safety programs — mainly for staff training and certification. Beau Duffy, DOT Director of Communications, told The Paper that the agency also conducts random inspections or “blitzes” of rail facilities, focusing on track conditions and mechanical equipment such as brakes and wheels. He said that DOT does not however inspect bridges.
National issue … local focus
The deteriorating bridge across from Cold Spring brings what has become a significant national issue into very local focus.
Commenting on the CSX bridge, a Federal Railroad Administration official told The Paper that the FRA would work with CSX to ensure it is in compliance with all federal safety standards noting that FRA inspectors regularly evaluate railroad companies’ bridge safety practices to identify potential weaknesses.
Local senior-elected officials also commented on the River Line bridge. “Like many of my neighbors, I’m extremely concerned about the integrity of this bridge,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-18th District, NY), when notified of the issue by The Paper. “I immediately brought this to the … attention of CSX, and I’ll work closely with officials to ensure inspections are conducted and any necessary repairs are done promptly. With billions of gallons of oil barreling down the Hudson, we must be vigilant that issues like this are addressed quickly — the safety of our neighbors, environment and communities is far too important.”
Maloney is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and has been working with the chairman of that committee to examine the environmental and economic impact of shipments of crude oil along the Hudson River.
New York State Sen. Terry Gipson (D-Dutchess, Putnam) also commented. “The impact of an oil train incident along the shore of the Hudson River would be devastating to our communities who rely on the river for their drinking water and our local economy,” Gipson said via email. “That is why I … have expressed strong concerns to our federal government about the need for safety improvements relating to the interstate transportation of crude oil along the Hudson River. This effort includes ensuring necessary track maintenance and infrastructure investments that will allow businesses to operate more effectively and safely.”
Photos by M. Turton