Hazards of rail transport

When we encounter news of railroad crashes involving oil and fuel tankers–such as the disaster last summer that took the lives of 47 people in Lac-M├ęgantic, Quebec–we probably don’t imagine anything like that in Brookline. We don’t even have freight rail here.

However, we once did. In the early 1850s, the former Charles River Branch Railroad was built from Needham through Newton and Brookline to Boston. For about twenty years it hauled millions of tons of gravel and sand to fill the largest parts of the Charles River’s former saltwater mudflats. Those once extended from what is now the east edge of the Public Garden to what is now the Charlesgate channel of the Muddy River and westward to what is now Kenmore Square. Since the mid-twentieth century, such a massive project probably would not happen. No one could likely get environmental waivers or permits today.

The former freight railroad is now the Riverside or D branch of the MBTA Green Line, since 1959, and the filled parts of Boston are the Back Bay neighborhoods. Unlike the rest of the Green Line, the Riverside branch was a first-class, heavy-duty railroad–a twin-track with fully separated crossings. After days of hauling gravel ended, the former Boston & Albany bought it to run a commuter-rail service into Boston. Passenger carriages were originally pulled by coal-fired steam locomotives, standard for the day.

A long-running controversy about the so-called Carlton St. Footbridge–passing over tracks of the former Charles River Branch Railroad and connecting Colchester St. and Carlton St. with the Riverway and Olmsted Park–has origins in the 1890s, when Longwood-area residents asked selectmen to install it as a convenience. It served a whistle-stop on the former B&A commuter-rail branch between Needham and Boston.

Unlike handsome stone bridges designed during park construction under Mr. Olmsted, Sr.–whose son chaired Brookline’s first Planning Board–the Carlton St. bridge was a makeshift. Brookline highway workers assembled it from steel shards, beams and fasteners. Under Article 5, a special town meeting November 17, 2009, appropriated $1.4 million, using a rare roll-call vote, to rehabilitate the rusted-out relic, which has been closed to public access as a safety hazard since fall, 1975. So far, the project has not been completed.

The city of Revere is not so fortunate as Brookline to be distant from its freight-rail history. Branches of the former Boston & Maine–some transporting freight under successor Pan Am Railways–provide a potential corridor connecting interstate rail to large oil depots along banks of the Chelsea River. In 2011, Global Partners, owner of the largest tank complex, proposed to bring grain alcohol from the Midwest into Revere and East Boston, using rail tankers. Revere residents and city officials became alarmed.

Most rail tankers in widespread use today to carry flammable liquids were designed in the 1950s, as much for capacity as safety. Of more than 100,000 type DOT-111 tank cars built, over sixty years around a third have been involved in rail crashes. Even when traveling at low speeds, hundreds have split open, starting massive fires. These tankers carry about 30,000 gallons each, or about three times the fuel carried by each of the jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001.

Global of Revere proposed to bring in one to three trains a week, typically 60 cars each–a total that could reach around 200 million gallons a year of fuel-grade ethanol to be blended into gasoline. That would probably travel through eastern Massachusetts at night along the route of the MBTA Fitchburg Line commuter rail–through Lowell, Cambridge, Chelsea and other communities. Global has been shipping ethanol by rail from the Midwest to Providence and then by barge from Providence to its tanks in Revere. Eliminating barge shipping could save money.

Revere residents approved a ballot question opposing rail shipment of ethanol. They joined with people from several other communities, pressuring the state legislature. Considering potential hazards from multiple perspectives, the General Court attached “outside section” 81 to H. 3538 of 2013, the fiscal 2014 appropriations bill. It likely matters that Robert A. DeLeo, the House speaker, represents Revere and has his district office there.

Section 81 did not attack rail transport of ethanol. Instead it would have altered Chapter 91 of the General Laws, regulating waterways, by blocking new licenses for facilities that store or blend large amounts of ethanol when located within a mile of a census tract with a population density above 4,000 residents per square mile. As soon as its current licenses expire, that might have put Global out of business in Revere. At best, the company could blend ethanol elsewhere and bring in pre-blended gasoline, raising costs.

Governor Patrick used a so-called “line-item veto” against Section 81. Mr. Patrick, a former corporate lawyer who is not a candidate for re-election this fall, proposed that the General Court instead forbid using rail tankers to bring ethanol into Revere or East Boston before August, 2015. He promised to have the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency develop a “comprehensive ethanol transport response plan.” However, a few days earlier Global had announced it was suspending plans to transport ethanol by rail.

Gov. Patrick issued, at best, a disingenuous statement. Unlike many among the public, he and concerned state legislators would have been well aware that the Massachusetts Department of Transportation had just published an “Ethanol Safety Study.” In Chapter 4, Report Findings, it frankly states that “movement of [ethanol or other hazardous materials] is regulated at a federal level, and it cannot be regulated in any manner at the state or local level.” By acting to force Global of Revere to change its plans, close or relocate, the General Court was exercising powers it does have to head off potential disasters.

Rail tankers do not seem likely to become much safer very soon. There is a somewhat sturdier design approved as a Canadian standard, in the wake of Lac-M├ęgantic: type CPC-1232. However, that design might not be enough. Recently another rail tanker crash occurred in downtown Lynchburg, VA. Three tank cars loaded with petroleum split open and ignited, but no one was reported injured. Associated Press news writers stated that the National Transportation Safety Board knows of “several accidents in which cars built to the new standards ruptured.”

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, May 1, 2014


Dave Riehle, Runaway Quebec train, source of so much heartache, began its journey toward disaster years ago, Workday Minnesota, July 24, 2013

John Laidler, Ethanol transport raising concerns, Boston Globe, August 4, 2011

Seth Daniel, Screeching halt: backed into corner, Global withdraws ethanol train plan, Chelsea Record, July 4, 2013

Alan Suderman and Michael Felberbaum, Associated Press, Rail tankers carrying oil derail and catch fire in Virginia, New York Times, May 1, 2014

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