The sights and sounds of freight trains rumbling through town have been commonplace for decades in Capital Region communities like Cobleskill and Fonda, Amsterdam and Schenectady.
But with increasing frequency, the rectangular shipping containers are sharing the tracks with cylindrical fluid carriers — many of which carry flammable material and are drawing worldwide attention following last year’s fiery railway disasters in North Dakota and Canada.
An ongoing discussion over expanding a facility at the Port of Albany — the destination for many of these shipments — is drawing the attention of state government and environmental groups. Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week ordered a “top-to-bottom” review of the state’s safety procedures and capacity to respond to an emergency that could happen on the rails or on local waterways.
It’s not a novel idea in a state with 4,600 miles of tracks that handled more than 22 million tons of inbound freight, roughly 360,000 train carloads — including coal, chemicals and food products — in 2010.
The state’s thorough review was prompted by current events — flaming disasters in North Dakota and Quebec that followed derailments of trains carrying crude oil — and the ongoing discussion of plans to handle crude oil shipments near the Hudson River.
In 2010, there wasn’t any crude oil heading into New York state from the Bakken formation in North Dakota. Now, roughly 120 carloads travel from there daily, according to the governor’s office.
The North Dakota drilling site produces crude that ignites faster than other types — as evidenced by the Dec. 30 derailment and explosion in Casselton, N.D., the second major rail-related disaster in North America in 2013. More than 45 people were killed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July after an oil-laden freight rain derailed, setting numerous buildings on fire.
These and other incidents led to New York’s new review. The study won’t actually improve safety but will explore how prepared the state is to handle a similar conflagration.
Crude oil is but one of several flammables that roll through Capital Region towns. Ethanol and biofuels join them, along with other chemicals.
HUDSON RIVER worries
Plans to modify a Port of Albany facility to warm up crude oil on train cars to make it easier to pump onto Hudson River transport tankers drew so much attention that the state Department of Environmental Conservation last week extended a public comment period until April.
An expansion request by Global Companies for its Port of Albany site, where the oil is shipped for transport to refineries via the Hudson River, requires a change in a permit that governs the facility’s emissions. The project doesn’t call for increased shipments but relates to the need to install boilers to warm up tar sand and crude oil so they can be pumped into tanker ships on the river.
Riverkeeper Hudson River, an environmental watchdog group, says the crude oil is extremely difficult to clean up if it spills. Program Manager Phillip Musegaas said the newer products heading to Albany — tar sand and other crude oils — are so thick they need to be warmed in the rail cars to become fluid enough to pump onto boats.
That viscosity, Musegaas said, causes the oil to head right to the bottom of waterways, instead of floating on top, after a spill.
Crossing the region
Although the Global Companies proposal has drawn the attention of Riverkeeper and environmentalists near the Hudson River, the issue is also important to communities that serve as a pathway for these freight trains bound for Albany.
Two major freight lines — CSX and Canadian Pacific — run through populated areas in Schoharie, Montgomery and Schenectady counties on their way to Albany and Rensselaer. Canadian Pacific operates a main line carrying crude oil, among other things, which enters New York from Binghamton and runs along the Interstate 88 corridor through Cobleskill, Schoharie, Rotterdam, Glenville and Schenectady. It splits in East Glenville and heads north or east.
To the north, the rail line travels through Ballston Spa and Saratoga Springs, Fort Edward and north into Canada. To the east, it heads to Mechanicville, then south along the Hudson River through Cohoes, Watervliet and then Albany.
CSX is another main freight line delving into the transport of crude oil. The company last year announced expansion of its railway running south of Albany along the Hudson River. The company on its website boasts that its path is the “fastest way to the Philadelphia area due to flatter terrain, priority access and expanded capacity.”
The pathway gives CSX the advantage of offering speedy transport that can make it to the Hudson River from as far away as Chicago in less than 48 hours. CSX is offering an Express Ethanol Delivery service, highlighting is ability to accommodate unit trains with 80 or more cars, along its line that runs along the Mohawk River through the cities of Amsterdam and Schenectady toward receiving facilities on the Hudson River in Albany and Rensselaer.
CSX shares those rails with Amtrak, which carries passengers east and west on its Empire Service, Lake Shore Limited and Maple Leaf lines.
Rail companies are private businesses, and details of what their trains are carrying are also private.
“CSX does not publicly discuss the details of its commercial transactions,” CSX spokesman Robert Sullivan said in an email, though he did confirm that oil is among products seeing an increase in shipment due to new sources.
“Oil is among the products and commodities moved by CSX. Customer demand has increased recently as new sources of oil production have come online. Some of the oil destined for eastern refineries travels over CSX’s double-track main line in upstate New York and from there south over CSX’s mostly double-tracked line to northern New Jersey and beyond,” Sullivan said.
The Association of American Railroads collects nationwide information but nothing about individual tracks or rail companies, according to spokeswoman Julia Wise.
The association last week issued a news release assuring the public that crude oil can be shipped safely both by rail and pipeline.
About 9,500 train cars were loaded with crude oil in 2008, and that number grew to 234,000 in 2012, according to the association. Roughly 400,000 carloads of crude oil are expected to be rolling on U.S. rail tracks in 2014.
Bracing for disaster
Any increase in the transport of flammables is important to watch, said Montgomery County Emergency Management Director Jeff Smith.
“From an emergency management standpoint, that’s a major concern of ours,” said Smith, who has seen his share of freight train derailments during a 25-year career at the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office.
Route 5 was shut down for two months after a June 27, 2013, head-on collision between two freight trains, complicating travel at a time when the county was coping with massive flooding that killed a Fort Plain woman June 28.
In 2009, an Amtrak passenger train derailed in Tribes Hill, injuring one of its 221 passengers.
In May 2006, roughly 25,000 gallons of vegetable oil and another 400 cubic yards of sewage spilled after another derailment in Tribes Hill, west of Amsterdam.
Victoria Doyle of Johnstown was killed by a freight train while trying to cross the tracks in Fonda in February 2005, when the crossing’s warning lights weren’t flashing to warn motorists that a train was coming.
A freight train also derailed next to Riverlink Park in Amsterdam in October 2005.
For Smith, the emergency response to derailments can’t be planned much in advance — officials aren’t told what’s on trains until after they topple.
“If and when we learn exactly what’s coming through and how often, certainly hazmat [crews] can train and be prepared. But a lot of times right now, we don’t know what’s going east and west,” Smith said.
Helpful for emergency managers, he said, would be a “heads up” from rail companies if they know there’s a big shipment of flammables heading through.
“The more that comes through, the more the possibility exists for accidents,” Smith said.
Schenectady County has seen its own derailments. Last February, a freight train derailed alongside a mobile home community in Glenville, not far from the town’s water supply wells.
Many of these accidents were followed by calls from state or federal legislators seeking research similar to what Cuomo called for last week. Last year’s disasters led to a meeting between railway executives and U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who sought actions that could lead to safer transport.
“We share the secretary’s sense of urgency and want to help instill public confidence in rail’s ability to meet the demand for moving more energy resources in this country,” AAR President Edward R. Hamberger said in a news release.