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.
But the one job that won't get done is installation of a new high-tech integrated command and control safety system, Positive Train Control (PTC), even though Congress seven years ago mandated its deployment by the end of 2015. A bipartisan bill already has been introduced to extend the safety system deadline five more years. (See sidebar.)
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. Plale did not respond to requests for comment, but in a report last year by WisconsinWatch.org he said the increase was in part due to frack sand shipping. Nearly half the freight trainloads that originate in Wisconsin are carrying "stone, sand, and gravel," rail industry data shows.
The industry group, the Association of American Railroads, referred questions about motorist or pedestrian safety to Operation Lifesaver, which is a nonprofit train safety education group. It is funded jointly by the rail industry and the federal government.
Joyce Rose, Operation Lifesaver's president and chief executive officer, said that outreach is important in areas where train patterns are changing.
"Certainly when you start a service for the first time, it's smart to reach out to people who are not used to seeing trains going 55 miles per hour, and do public education before you start," she said. "People do not always see tracks and think, 'Train.'" We want people to think train every time they come to a railroad crossing."
The "trespasser" problem
Last year's fatality statistics, Rose said, demonstrate the continuing need to raise public awareness about train safety. She said Operation Lifesaver would be working with the railroads, state and local law enforcement, and government agencies to expand its safety campaign.
The 827 deaths nationwide due to trains in 2014 were about 15 percent above the average of the past six years, FRA figures show. But years ago, U.S. train fatalities were far higher—averaging 1,600 annual deaths in the 1970s and 1,100 per year in the 1990s. Installation of gates and flashing light systems, funded largely with the help of U.S. government aid, greatly reduced hazards at highway and road crossings.
Last year's increase in rail-related deaths was not at crossings, but among what the government calls "trespassers;" people on or near the tracks not at crossings.
"We try to do everything we can to get word out about trespassing and about highway grade crossings,” FRA spokesman Mike Booth said. "The figures were down for a few years, but now they've started to come back up." Asked whether any particular geographic areas are seeing an unusual increase in fatalities, Booth said, "That's not something we typically track. We are concerned with rail safety, no matter where the trains are."
A death tax?
Robert Pottroff, a Manhattan, Kansas, lawyer who has long specialized in representing people in injury and death lawsuits against railroad companies, faults the railroads for not investing in and implementing safety measures. He said the problem is not just the need for high-tech safety systems, but more mundane fixes, like fences to deter people from traversing the tracks between crossings.
"They call them 'trespassers,'" Pottroff said. "We like to call them 'pedestrians.' Sometimes we call them, 'Our children.'"
Pottroff recently arrived at a confidential settlement on behalf of eight Texas families who sued Union Pacific in one of the most high-profile rail fatality cases in recent years. Four veterans were killed and a dozen people were injured when the Veterans' Day parade float they were riding crossed the tracks in front of a train traveling 62 miles per hour in 2012 in Midland, Texas. The accident did not involve an oil train, although Midland is the heart of west Texas oil country, and both the community and rail traffic have been growing quickly.
Onus on communities
Old design plans at the crossing had called for trains to travel 25 miles per hour, but Union Pacific had raised its speed limit to 70 mph in 2006 to accommodate increasing train traffic. In 2007, Midland gained permission from the federal government to establish a "quiet zone" at the crossing, to limit train horns from sounding through town. At the time of the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded the train was following federal regulations. The NTSB faulted the parade planners and Midland for not taking proper safety precautions
"Any place where there is an increase in rail traffic, there will be a net increase in fatalities," Pottroff said. "The reason is this is just like a cost of doing business. It's like a death tax."
The lesson of the Midland accident may be that the burden will be on local communities to prepare for increased train traffic. The FRA announced last week that it would begin "a multi-faceted campaign" to strengthen safety at grade crossings. The first phase will call on local police to show greater presence at crossings and issue citations to drivers who violate rules. And the NTSB said this week that it would hold a forum in Washington, D.C. later this month on the dangers of rail trespassing.
In Wisconsin, the state railroad commissioner's recent case records show that communities are struggling to mesh daily living with new rail traffic patterns.
For example, the city of Madison recently won preliminary approval to build a sidewalk across the Wisconsin & Southern Railroad tracks to ease pedestrian crossings for residents of 256 new housing units built on both sides of the tracks. The railroad, noting a "long-term, ongoing trespassing problem," with people crossing the tracks near a shopping center a half-mile west, had asked a hearing examiner to require Madison to add a fence to its plans. The hearing officer declined to force the city to bear the additional cost; Madison hopes pedestrians will safely use the new sidewalk at the crossing.
This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.