Is This The Train Tragedy We’ll Learn From? (Updated)

 

The scene in Frankford this morning: just out of frame, an idle oil train sits next to the wreckage of last night's Amtrak Train 188 | Photo: Bradley Maule

The scene in Frankford this morning: just out of frame, an idle oil train sits next to the wreckage of last night’s Amtrak Train 188 | Photo: Bradley Maule

Sadness hangs over cloudy Philadelphia, where at least seven people have died from last night’s derailment of Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188. Those figures could increase as the wreckage is cleared and inspected, and in spite of the already dreadful number of fatalities, it could have been even worse. No more than 50 feet from where the careening train came to rest, an oil train sat parked on the tracks. (See this photo by Inquirer photographer Bryan Woolston; it accompanied excellent, ongoing coverage by the paper’s transit writer Paul Nussbaum.)

UPDATE: When asked on Wednesday by Philly mag’s Patrick Kerkstra, a Conrail spokesman would neither confirm nor deny the series of black tanker cars contained oil; the Inquirer later reported that the National Transportation Safety Board’s Robert Sumwalt said he “was told” the tankers were empty.

Despite protests and despite several costly accidents since they started rolling out of North Dakota’s Bakken region five years ago, the oil trains won’t be stopping. They’re now a way of life for people across the country—mile-long trains trudging the ancient arteries connecting urban dots across the country, through Chicago, through Pittsburgh, through Fairmount Park and Center City in Philadelphia’s booming petro metro. And, indeed, through Frankford.

File photo: An Amtrak Northeast Regional train passes under the footbridge connecting Port Richmond and Frankford via Wheatsheaf Lane. Though it still stands, but has been disused for years | Photo: Bradley Maule

File photo: An Amtrak Northeast Regional train passes under the footbridge connecting Port Richmond and Frankford via Wheatsheaf Lane. Though it still stands, it has been disused for years | Photo: Bradley Maule

In 1943, a Pennsylvania Railroad train derailed and killed 79 passengers at the same site as last night’s disaster, a section called Frankford Junction. It doubles as the geographic junction of the neighborhoods of Frankford, Juniata Park, Port Richmond, and Bridesburg, with the train tracks and Frankford Creek defining the respective neighborhood boundaries. Though SEPTA discontinued passenger service there in 1990, the rail junction still sees heavy use.

Dating to 1832, Frankford Junction has served to connect several rail lines, including the Philadelphia & Trenton Railroad, who built the station, the long-gone Kensington & Tacony Railroad, whose abandoned trestle creeps through Port Richmond, and the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Connecting Railway, which opened uninterrupted through-service between Philadelphia and New York in 1867. That line is now owned by Amtrak for its Northeast Corridor, by far the agency’s most traveled and lucrative line, and one of the few rights-of-way in the country the rail agency owns.

In most of the country, Amtrak leases track use from the freight companies that own them. In the Northeast Corridor (NEC), it’s an opposite arrangement, with Conrail sharing trackage rights with Amtrak to operate trains owned by CSX and Norfolk Southern between Princeton Junction, NJ and Marcus Hook, PA. Ever more frequently, those trains carry over three million gallons of crude oil (100 cars each with over 30,000 gallons) to the refineries in South Philadelphia, Marcus Hook, and Paulsboro, NJ. To reach the latter, oil trains share close space with Amtrak, SEPTA, and New Jersey Transit passenger trains to reach Frankford Junction. There, the trains leave the Northeast Corridor and cross the Delair Bridge, the 119-year-old lift bridge Conrail shares with New Jersey Transit’s Atlantic City Line. (NJT’s short-lived Atlantic City Express Service (ACES) from New York also crossed the Delair Bridge from 2009–2011.)

In Philadelphia, two of CSX’s oil trains have run off the rails thankfully without incident. In January 2014, seven cars derailed on the Arsenal Bridge, the Schuylkill River crossing that connects the West Philadelphia high line with the 25th Street elevated viaduct through South Philadelphia; some cars dangled directly over the river but did not release any oil. A year later, 11 cars derailed in the Navy Yard, just south of I-95 and Lincoln Financial Field. Last night, a rare Amtrak NEC derailment just missed drilling the idle oil train two tracks over.

A train carrying Bakken crude oil travels the Northeast Corridor en route to the South Jersey refineries; Katharina Grosse's psychylustro visible at rear | Photo: Bradley Maule

A train carrying Bakken crude oil travels the Northeast Corridor en route to the South Jersey refineries; Katharina Grosse’s psychylustro visible at rear | Photo: Bradley Maule

Yet, despite the well documented problems and pleas from the likes of Ed Rendell, Michael Bloomberg, and even Donald Trump, little has been done to improve America’s infrastructure or instill citizen confidence. Dozens of oil train crashes have occurred since 2010, including another one last week in Heimdal, North Dakota. Older DOT-111 cars, not originally built for oil transport, have been blamed for several explosions; the industry has promised to phase them out, and legislators like Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey have proposed laws to hold them accountable in the interim. But several accidents, including last week’s in North Dakota and one in West Virginia in February, saw the same fiery results in newer CPC-1232 cars.

Meanwhile, in spite of campaign promises for better infrastructure and high speed rail, Amtrak is little better off than when President Barack Obama and his Vice President, “Amtrak Joe” Biden, took office. Amtrak suffered dearly under the Clinton Administration, and further cuts were made under George W. Bush. And today, a House Appropriations panel approved a fiscal 2016 bill that slashes Amtrak’s annual funding to $1.1 billion.

While it looks like last night’s derailment was the result of user error—early reports show the train was going double the posted speed at the sharp curve at Frankford Junction—to continue defunding an agency whose ridership continues to increase, on ever aging infrastructure, is mind boggling. Likewise, for the railroads to request an extension of this year’s deadline for the implementation of Positive Train Control, a series of safety provisions that came out of the U.S. Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, is as irresponsible as continuing the employment of outdated cars to transport materials as volatile as crude oil.

As politics run their glacial course, the rest of us put our faith in the responders who hope for the best and plan for the worst.

About the author

Bradley Maule is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and the creator of Philly Skyline. He's a native of Tyrone, Pennsylvania, and he's hung his hat in Shippensburg, Germantown, G-Ho, Fishtown, Portland OR, Brewerytown, and now Mt. Airy. He just can't get into Twitter, but he's way into Instagram @mauleofamerica.



16 Comments


  1. What’s it going to take in order for the United States to have an updated transportation system? What’s holding us back? Republicans who want votes from far-right voters who hate trains? Cause that’s just about the only thing I can think of. It’s absolutely ludicrous that this is what the “best country in the world” looks like in 2015. We’re a horrible, disgraceful mess.

    • You’re thinking way too small. Those politicians do not care about their constituents in the slightest. They’re probably receiving money from the lobbies for energy companies, for airlines, for trucking companies, and for auto companies. Better train service hurts all of them. Energy companies and airlines also are of course subsidized by us, as we all know.

  2. Another “asleep at the wheel” engineer! The number of idiots running things never ceases to amaze me. And….meanwhile back in Washington …. they have plenty of money for foreign aid (to countries who hate our guts) but little to none for our country and its antique infrastructure.

  3. “To continue defunding an agency whose ridership continues to increase, on ever aging infrastructure, is mind boggling.”

    No, continuing to shove billions of tax dollars into a perpetually money-losing monopoly is what’s mind boggling.

    • You mean war? I totally agree.

    • The money spent subsidizing rail and public transit is a drop in the bucket compared to the billions upon billions we pour in subsidizing roads.

    • We keep shoving money into interstate highways but they don’t turn a profit. We keep shoving money into libraries and schools but they don’t turn a profit, either. The FAA has a (near) monopoly on air-traffic control and doesn’t make money. It’s mind-boggling that such horrible waste is allowed to continue year after year. THIS HAS TO STOP!

    • Governments–state, federal, local–have been subsidizing railroads since the very beginning in the early 19th century. Generally speaking, they don’t work very well as private, “market-based” businesses (and those who imagine they can are ignoring the economics). Given the investment needed in infrastructure, some kind of monopoly is the likely result. As a public utility, however, they run rather well if invested in properly, as some nations with their excellent rail systems prove. –ed.

  4. So how do we ship the oil? If you don’t like the train option, maybe we can ship it by truck over the highways which are also used by cars carrying people. But wait… Have you looked into the number of oil truck accidents yet?

    Don’t like trucks? Okay, how about we build a pipeline through Philly to the refineries? No? Maybe you don’t think the neighborhoods will take too kindly to that idea?

    Don’t like oil? Do you own a car? Heat your house with oil? Use lubricants of any kind?

    I guess someone will come up with an incantation to magically take the oil from North Dakota and make it appear in the tanks near the refineries.

    • Maybe we should spend time and funds to find an alternative to oil. Oil is, after all, contributing to global warming.

  5. Who cares whether I like the train option or not, the trains are a reality. No politician would come close to shutting down a money and job generating comeback story. What I would like to see, since oil trains are “here to stay,” as Phil Rinaldi told Patrick Kerkstra for Philly mag, and with such frequency, is holding the railroads accountable and having them meet their Positive Train Control deadlines this year. Those won’t prevent every future derailment, but having mandatory safety provisions in place that, for example, automatically slow down trains that are exceeding a certain speed, will help.

  6. AMTRAK has on its website a plan to spend 150B to replace the outdated trains on the Northeast Corridor that get a lot of use. The plans are mind boggling and have a completion date of 2030 if Congress endorses it and provides necessary funding. For Philadelphia, this will involve tunneling under the Delaware River from a new rail way in New Jersey and deep underneath much of Center City Philadelphia to create a cavernous space deep under Jefferson Station (Market Street East) that will host the high speed trains and be an long escalator ride from Jefferson Station. Then the route will go deep underneath much of Center City and under the Schuylkill River, popping up near the newly renovated Philadelphia International Airport to pick up passengers before zooming to Baltimore and DC. A lot of land acquisition will have to be made in the affected states and a lot of money provided to make it possible. My grandfather helped build the Holland Tunnel. If men in his generation can do it, then why can’t our children and grandchildren take on this challenge instead of behaving like the children we have in Congress fighting with each other?

  7. NickFromGermantown

    I really like Amtrak, but I think they have been given an impossible mission and get constantly harassed for not meeting unreasonable expectations.

    A comprehensive study should be done to determine which passenger rail lines are feasible and which are not. The Northeast Corridor makes a lot of sense to invest in and serves a critical role. A train from New Orleans to Los Angeles makes absolutely no sense. These ridiculous lines are strangling the system and hurting the markets where it makes sense to have trains.

    Reference the following article for more details: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/03/01/amtrak-loses-a-ton-of-money-each-year-it-doesnt-have-to/

    Here is the base information for Amtrak route profitability: http://www.brookings.edu/research/interactives/2013/AmtrakRoutes

  8. Someday soon taxpayers we’ll end up paying for safer rail lines regardless if we don’t use them and rather drive. If our law makers get out of the pension business with our tax dollars, we could put it where it’s needed. Taxpayers are enough hooks that have us on a strain . Let the private equity companies and Wall Street chip in here. They make enough on fees.

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