Fatalities reach seven-year high as railroads embark on a record expansion
March 16, 2015 By Marianne Lavelle Scientific American
Every week in the United States in 2014, about 16 people were killed by trains—a 17 percent increase over the previous year and adding up to the highest number of rail casualties since 2007, federal government data shows.
None of these victims died in fiery crude oil explosions like the ones visible for miles around train derailment sites this month in Illinois and Ontario. But in some regions, there are signs that the increasing deaths may be tied to a massive energy-driven transformation underway on U.S. railroads. (See sidebar, "Five ways energy is driving new railroad traffic.")
As the tracks become major conduits for oil, petroleum products, and—not as widely noticed—materials like industrial sand, pipe, and chemicals for the hydraulic fracturing of oil and natural gas wells, some states are grappling with changed train routes, speeds and traffic patterns that spell new hazards for pedestrians and motorists.
Ready for expansion?
Adding to risk are surging U.S. passenger railroads, which typically operate on the same tracks as freight. The number of people struck and killed by passenger trains last year, about 255, was the highest toll of non-passenger fatalities for those railroads in 40 years of record-keeping by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
The increase in fatalities raises questions whether the nation is prepared for the massive rail expansion already underway. Railroads plan record capital spending of $29 billion this year. They'll lay new track, double existing track, buy locomotives and build terminals.....
....The most populous states had the greatest number of train fatalities. California, with 141 deaths, and Texas, with 65, together accounted for 25 percent of the total. California was one of the few places that the majority of fatalities were due to passenger trains. Across the country, 70 percent of those who died on railroads in 2014, some 575 people, were killed by freight trains.
Freight rail traffic increased 4.5 percent last year, a substantial bump after two prior years of declining carloads. That drop-off was due mainly to falling demand for rail's longtime mainstay commodity—coal. But freight rebounded due to strong shipping of consumer goods and its single fastest-growing commodity, crude oil, up 20.1 percent over 2013 to 493,126 carloads in 2014, the Association of American Railroads reported.
Fracking's broad footprint
The rail industry is quick to point out that crude oil is only 2 percent of total freight traffic. But that understates the far-reaching impact that the changing U.S. energy picture has had in reshaping the railroad business.
Consider Wisconsin’s 16 deaths on train tracks in 2014—a 167 percent increase over the prior year and double the average of the previous six years.
“Rail traffic in Wisconsin is growing exponentially!” says a warning on the web site of state Railroad Commissioner Jeff Plale. “Trains are running throughout the state at higher speeds, more frequently, and sometimes on lines that have either been closed or have not seen trains in years."
Wisconsin's rail resurgence is due to its status as the No. 1 state for the mining and hauling of high-quality industrial sand, which is a crucial ingredient for hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells. Sand is one of rail's fastest-growing commodities, and Wisconsin tax revenue receipts from railroads are up 90 percent since 2006..... more here