Predicting oil train accidents

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I’ve been wondering, as you may have: How many serious incidents involving unit oil trains should you expect? The goal may be none, obviously, but we know a lot about railway accidents, and statistics provide answers. Something I read on the RBN Energy web site, in which a subscriber did his own probability analysis, sent me to the Federal Railroad Administration’s accident database. There, I wasn’t able to replicate what this fellow did, but came up with my own answer to the q...

Rails get real about the dangers of crude

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
On January 4, I wrote that railroad executives ought to be running scared, for three reasons: They don’t know why trains of oil from North Dakota are exploding in derailments, they risk losing important new business on account of this, and most of all, because these disasters, one of which killed 47 innocent people, undermine trust in railroads, and trust is almost like virginity, once lost, never regained. To that last reason, forget crude oil—once John Q. Public regards you as the ...

Awaiting the revolution

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Last year, BNSF Railway’s Matt Rose startled the industry by revealing that his company would test locomotives fueled by liquefied natural gas (LNG), with the possibility of full-scale implementation of this new (for railroads) fuel source starting as soon as the end of 2014. At the time, I called this development “bigger than the shift from steam.” Since then, we’ve been waiting. BNSF’s tests have already begun, using locomotives reconfigured by Electro Motive Die...

Simple pleasures remembered

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I  miss and wish I could recreate in my life today the excitement I felt as a sixth grader at the sight or even the sound of a train. Come with me back almost 60 years, to Sulphur Springs, a town of 9,000 or so in northeast Texas that was lucky to be visited by the Dallas branches of both Kansas City Southern and Cotton Belt. I grew up there, and the best day of the week was Saturday. After lunch I’d bike to the KCS station, about half a mile from our house, to wait out the two freigh...

The great camera caper

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Mr. Frailey, you seem quite vexed today. What is the matter? The damn politicians, is what puts me out of sorts. Up theirs! Sir! I don’t know what “up theirs” means but it seems ugly. Get control of yourself. What is going on? What is going on, my friend, is that we had a railway accident that was preventable, and the politicians have intervened to superimpose a solution that does not in any way prevent such an accident from happening again. In other words, business as usual ...

The trouble with writing about train travel

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
The writer Paul Theroux started something with The Great Train Bazaar, the tale of his adventures in 1972, spanning the globe by rail. I found the book only moderately interesting, and his later rail-travel books pretty tedious, the exception being the account of traveling through central Argentina in utter misery on a steam-hauled narrow-gauge train beset by a dust storm, in The Old Patagonian Express. Since then, others have mined this genre. One well-praised book (by others, not by me) had it...

Let's beat up on lawyers

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Both of my wives (god bless each, in turn) are lawyers, so I realize they are folks society needs, just like journalists, members of Congress, and morticians, who often are also targets of disdain. But sometimes your mouth is open in unbelievable wonder at the audacity of the legal profession. The Desert Dispatch, of Barstow, Calif., provides the text for today’s sermon, and I thank Bill Baird’s Tortoise Tattler (go here to sign up for his weekday feed and here for the original stor...

Fear at headquarters

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
The folks who run the big freight railroads are a frightened lot these days. If they are not, they ought to be. Three times in six months, unit crude oil trains have derailed and cars of oil exploded. Forty-seven people are dead . . . so far. The railroad executives are frightened (or, again, should be) for three reasons. First, you can’t fix what you don’t know is broken. All three trains originated in North Dakota, two from separate terminals served by BNSF Railway and one from a ...

CSX cracks open a new line of business

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I couldn’t believe my ears. Washington, D.C., radio station WTOP reports that CSX Transportation has shot from 0 to 100 percent market share in a product vital to the enjoyments of foodies like me: oyster shells. It seems that nearby Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population has gone into sharp decline because of overfishing and disease. Meanwhile, the beds of shells that oyster larva attach to in the early weeks of life have been covered over by silt. To the rescue, CSX. In a partnership ...

More on the Great PTC Train Wreck

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Last week I wrote about the problem that has brought a big piece of the costly process of installing Positive Train Control (PTC being collision-avoidance technology) on 60,000 miles of railroad to a grinding halt. That problem is the conflict between the mandated deadline of completing PTC by the end of 2015 and an obscure section of the National Historic Preservation Act requiring that no radio installation license be granted by the Federal Communications Commission until Indian nations have i...

The cloud over crude oil by rail

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I salute the Association of American Railroads for getting out in front of the issue of tank car safety today with recommendations for retrofitting most cars that haul hazardous materials, particularly crude oil. A spate of accidents involving spillage and explosion of crude oil call into question the ability of railroads to safety transport this stuff. My reading of the AAR’s recommendations to a government agency leads me to believe the rail industry is meeting this issue head-on, and pe...

Amtrak's fiscal report card for 2013

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Like the federal government, Amtrak works on a fiscal year ending September 30, and on its web site it recently posted its financial and operational results, which I’d like to share with you. Top line. Revenues versus fiscal 2012 were up $115 million, or 4 percent. But expenses rose $143 million, although that was only a 3.5 percent increase. The loss on continuing operations, $1.2 billion, was $28 million greater than a year earlier. Nonoperational income and expenses were $39 million to...

There goes Positive Train Control

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Where is the National Transportation Safety Board when we need it? A critical collision has occurred in the railroad industry. It seems that the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 has broadsided the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. For weeks now, I’ve been vacillating between spells of laughter and fits of outrage, trying to decide what to think about the mess the government has gotten itself into now with Positive Train Control, the extremely expensive technology that Congress...

John Mica wins one

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
A hurrah for the Republican congressman from suburban Orlando and frequent Amtrak critic. Maybe I need to revise my opinion of the man (for what I said about Mica in July, go here). Amtrak has pledged to end its food service losses, which amounted to $74 million in fiscal 2013, within the next five years. And you can thank Mica for prodding Amtrak toward this announcement. Mica, chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure until this term, has bee...

Hunter: We don't run hotels in Calgary

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
While we’re on the subject of Canadian Pacific’s iconic headmaster, Hunter Harrison, a tip of my hat to Railway Age editor Bill Vantuono for this delightful scoop: “The Canadian Transportation Agency  on September 13 ordered Canadian Pacific Railway to immediately cease and desist ‘load testing’ and idling operations in proximity to its Locomotive Reliability Centre (LRC) at Alyth Yard, Calgary. CP, noting CTA’s apparent inability to recognize that railr...

Who needs the Keystone XL pipeline?

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
North of Regina, Sask., sits a mountain of steel pipe in storage. Say hello to TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline. It's been this way several years as TransCanada wages a political fight against environmentalists for the heart of President Barack Obama. TransCanada's supporters say the pipeline is needed to get Canadian heavy crude oil in Alberta and North Dakota light sweet crude in the Bakken shale formation to U.S. refiners; they wave the flag of energy independence. Enviromentalists say poll...

Hunter Harrison takes the offensive

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
The Canadian Pacific CEO used an interview with Toronto's Globe & Mail, published today, to blast Canada's transportation-safety establishment for its slowness in investigating the Lac-Megantic catastrophe and failure so far to toughen safety standards. "God forbid that something else should happen again while they investigate," he said. I admit that it's a bit strange to come upon a railroad executive asking for more regulations. Myself, I do not question Harrison's sincerity. I think that...

Are you a railfan? A one-question test

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
From a friend (a senior VP of a Class I railroad) comes this bit of mind candy: “Railfans care about the locomotive. Railroaders care about what’s behind it.” My instinctive reaction is wholly negative. What a put-down! Then I consider that this railroad officer is, in his more buttoned-down way, more a rabid train chaser than even me. And I bow to no one in my rabidity. So here’s what I think: He is absolutely right. Look at any issue of Trains Magazine. What per...

Product review: Lake Shore Limited

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I have a love-hate relationship with this train. This is my fourth westbound trip on Amtrak 49 this year, so obviously I love it more than hate it. Here is why I keep coming back: The view of the mighty Hudson River for two and a half hours, the Rensselaer, N.Y., merge with our Boston section, the beautiful Mohawk River valley west of Albany at sunset, and the hustle and bustle of running the Norfolk Southern trainathon west of Elkhart, Ind., on the run-up to Chicago. And I hate the train for o...

Product review: In the lap of luxury

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
This is one of those summer weekend days that those of us within the Northeast Corridor dream about: sunny with hazy clouds, low humidity and pleasant temperatures. And I get to enjoy it from the first-class car of an Amtrak Acela Express.  When things go right, there is no better daytime travel experience in America than the car I occupy. Today, things are really looking up. This is not always the case. As you probably suspect, the difference between a ho-hum (or oh-dear) experience and a...

Oil by rail: The real opportunities

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Let me give you two numbers. First, 10 percent of the crude oil produced in the U.S. now moves by rail (this according to Cowen & Company). Second, crude oil accounts for about 1 percent of railroad carloads. That tells you that even if railroads carried all of the oil that comes out of the ground in this country, it would still not have the bottom line impact of coal, which accounts for almost one-quarter of railway revenues. But as coal loadings go into a possible long term decline, that o...

No more long distance trains

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I don’t mean that literally. But some (many) readers of my blog are under the impression that Amtrak decides which long distance routes to run and how many trains to run on them. No fewer than six of you who responded to my most recent piece, “Amtrak’s Missed Opportunities” (go here), expressed frustration that Amtrak hasn’t added more routes or more trains to existing routes, to hither, dither, and yon. To those of you, I say: You don’t understand how the sys...

Amtrak's missed opportunities

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
 We’re accustomed to having Congress try to micromanage Amtrak. Witness the legislation introduced (but not enacted) this year by my fellow Republicans mandating an end to food-service losses and even mandating an end to food service. It’s all very frustrating, this petty and infantile interference. But sometimes Congress gets it right. Such was the case five years ago, in the Passenger Rail Investment & Improvement Act. Section 210 of...

Limerick Jct. and the ladies from Cork

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
When Fritz Plous learns I am in Dublin, he emails at once that I should go to Limerick Junction, a rail crossing about 120 miles southwest of the capital, on the line to Cork. "It’s a station where four railway routes cross in the form of a hollow square," he says. "There’s a set of platforms on each of the four sides and, I believe, a set of foot bridges to allow passengers to cross the tracks and reach the connecting platforms. Nothing else like it in the world (just like Chicago U...

Product review: Pullman Rail Journeys

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Last November, short line operator Iowa Pacific Holdings began an unusual passenger service (one can almost call it unique), Pullman Rail Journeys. In short, it strives to recreate first class rail travel as it existed half a century or more ago. Its one scheduled service thus far is on the rear of Amtrak’s City of New Orleans between Chicago and the namesake city, two round trips per week, Tuesday and Friday southbound and Thursday and Sunday northbound. When Pullman put on a buy one room...

The tragedy of John Mica

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I would never call John Mica stupid. The Republican congressman from Florida, representing the northern suburbs of Orlando, has been active in politics for almost four decades, first in the Florida House of Representatives, then as chief of staff to a U.S. senator and, starting in 1992, as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Last November he trounced his Democratic opponent by a margin of 59-41 percent. So Mica is good at connecting with voters in his district, and as I said, he&rsquo...

The train you least expected to see

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Thanks to Eric Powell for the image you see above. Who would have imagined that the Indiana Rail Road, a regional outfit to this point known primarily for its profitable coal traffic, would be running scheduled intermodal trains into and out of Indianapolis? But it came to pass this month, initially on a triweekly basis. And I can assure you that there is no intermodal service quite like what INRD’s Tom Hoback arranged with partner Canadian National Railway. The train you see about to l...

North Dakota oil in the balance

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I want to bring you up to date on the economics of crude oil by rail. As you know, most of it flows out of the Bakken Shale oil fields in North Dakota and neighboring eastern Montana—by my reckoning, eight or more loaded trains a day on BNSF Railway and three or so on Canadian Pacific Railway. (Both CP and Canadian National also load oil, mostly in less-than-trainload lots, in Alberta.) What got railroads into the crude oil business for the first time in more than half a century were two ...

Quite enough of bashing Ed Burkhardt

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
The Monday morning quarterbacks who commented on my previous blog (here) thrashed the CEO of the company that owns the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic pretty thoroughly. Ed Burkhardt made mistakes, he surely did, such as not showing up in Lac Megantic, Que., for days after the catastrophe that took some 50 lives. Put aside what Burkhardt shoulda, coulda done before the accident. In fact, put aside Ed Burkhardt. Bear in mind that this man is almost 75 years old and the event in Lac Megantic was u...

The wages of Lac Megantic

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I’ve put off commenting upon the tragedy in Lac Megantic, Quebec. First of all, what is there to do but cry when 50 innocent lives get snuffed out in a moment’s time? Second, so much remains unknown that it is premature to state a cause and assign blames, and that’s the responsibility of someone else, in any event. Among the mysteries: What caused the fireball explosions that set Lac Megantic instantly aflame? Probably not the crude oil cars themselves, because oil doesn&rsquo...

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