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.
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.
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.