Seattle chides BNSF on tunnel safety

Douglas John Bowen, September 16, 2014, Railway Age

Seattle emergency officials are urging BNSF Railway to improve safety procedures related to a tunnel within the city now used for increasing amount of crude-by-rail (CBR) traffic.


The city’s Office of Emergency Management and its Fire Department issued an eight-page letter dated Sept. 12, 2014, calling for upgrades in BNSF’s communications & signaling, ventilation, and fire- and vapor-suppression capabilities.


Seattle also asked officials to provide a foam-response vehicle for firefighting, according to a Bloomberg News report.


The city already has a growing reputation for pressuring freight railroads on environmental matters, including CBR and coal movements by rail.


The Sept. 12, letter, addressed to the Seattle City Council, notes in part ” that the Seattle Fire Department and Seattle Office of Emergency Management review and, if needed, update the City’s incident response plans for the increasing risk imposed by the transport of petroleum by rail with a report back to the relevant committees of the City Council by June 20, 2014.”


Citing various threats, including earthquakes, to rail operational safety, the letter notes, “Over the last several years the region’s transportation systems have become busier, more congested, more tightly interdependent and lacking in substantial reserve capacity. Disruptions in one part of the system can produce large consequences far from the site of the disruption. Two major rail freight carriers operate in Seattle—BNSF and Union Pacific. They each operate intermodal rail yards to support shipment of goods through the Port of Seattle. All the yards are located in large flat areas that are identified liquefaction zones, meaning during a major earthquake we can expect the land in the area to become liquefied.


The letter specifically references recent CBR incidents in Lynchburg, Va., Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Casselton, N.D., and a July 24 incident in Seattle itself, where “several tank cars derailed in Seattle under the Magnolia Bridge and though no product was spilled, it brought home the risk of catastrophe here in Seattle.”


The letter acknowledges that “BNSF has taken some small but important steps to make Seattle safer, such as changing schedules to avoid unit trains with hazardous materials and passenger trains from moving through the tunnel at the same time.” But it adds that “the rail tunnel beneath the city is antiquated and more must be done to mitigate the risk of an oil incident.”


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