Rail officials talk safety, derailments

In the wake of three local derailments, Genesee &Wyoming railroad executives have learned two things: Some of the track they bought from RailAmerica in 2012 is in much worse shape than they realized, and “people don’t know who we are.”

For the first issue, Puget Sound &Pacific President Joel Haka recently pledged about $8.8 million in upgrades over the next three years. For the second, Haka and G&W Senior Vice President of Government and Industry Affairs Jerry Vest sat down with The Daily World’s editorial board this week.

“One of the things we learned with this series of derailments, which were unfortunate, is that people don’t know who we are,” Haka said.


Haka is also a senior vice president with G&W for its Pacific Region railroads, serving as president of six short line railroads in all.

It’s the local one that’s been the problem recently: PS&P had three derailments over the course of about a month. A May 15 derailment near Montesano where 11 grain cars left the track was found to be caused by a “sun kink,” or warped rail caused by sudden changes in temperature. A May 9 derailment in Aberdeen saw seven cars off the track near the Olympic Gateway Mall as a result of failed rail ties because of heavy rains. The first derailment, April 29, had five cars tipped near South Michigan Street in Aberdeen.

“We had two derailments within a couple of weeks, and we couldn’t understand that,” Haka said. “Then we had a third one and the hair on the back of our necks stood up.”

Haka closed the railroad entirely for two days. A geometry car, which checks the track’s alignment, had begun examining the track after the second derailment, but hadn’t yet reached the site where the third train derailed.

“Joel’s decision to shut the railroad down, I think, is a fundamental cornerstone of the belief at G&W,” Vest said. “If we can’t do something safely we just shouldn’t do it.”

G&W is a 110-year-old rail company that started with a shortline railroad in upstate New York — in Genesee and Wyoming counties. Since then, it has grown into one of the largest short-line railroad companies in the world, with 112 railroads in North America, Europe and Australia.

Despite all that experience buying short line railroads, Haka and Vest acknowledged that the problems on the PS&P line got by the company, both before it bought RailAmerica, PS&P’s former owner, and in the 18 months it has owned the railroad.

“We have a lot of physical, civil-type engineers,” Haka said. “They looked at this railroad … one thing that became apparent is that the maintenance practices were not the best. And we didn’t realize that — now we’re aware of it.”

“These problems took more than 18 months to develop,” Vest added, but “we have a responsibility to run this railroad safely, it’s that fundamental. Obviously the inspection practices didn’t catch these (problems) and they should have.”

“We went over all the inspections with a fine tooth comb,” Haka said. “And the devil is always in the details. … We have revamped totally for this railroad. We were very disappointed.”

As a result of the derailments, the Federal Rail Administration conducted an investigation of the railroad and gave G&W a number of violations. An FRA spokesman confirmed that violations were issued, but said the specifics would not be available for release until the final report is completed.

Haka said the violations mostly related to mud seeping up through the track, and all of them have been fixed. He said no monetary fines have been issued.

“That happens when you don’t fix them, and we fixed them,” he said.

The derailments raised questions about the railroad’s readiness to serve three proposed crude oil terminals at the Port of Grays Harbor.

“At the end of the day, we move freight for a living, and I can’t have a derailment,” Haka said. “There’s a total lack of confidence.”

Haka said other railroads he run carry crude oil with a good safety record. He cited low speed limits, sometimes restricted to 10 mph, and inspecting the track before each shipment contribute to that. Vest said the repairs completed since the derailments here have taken care of the immediate issues, and the future investments will focus on hardening the rail and doing more toward preventing derailments. He likened it to lawn maintenance.

“Your lawn looks great, the weeds are gone, now what are you going to do to make sure the weeds don’t come back?” he said.

Crude by rail

More adjustments and policy changes would have to be made if the oil terminal projects proposed by Imperium Renewables, Westway Terminals and U.S. Development are ultimately approved.

The Imperium and Westway projects are currently in the process of completing an environmental impact statement. The U.S. Development project recently completed its initial application process.

“If and when the crude oil is approved, that is a whole new ballgame,” Vest said. “It’s hard for laypeople to understand this, but ‘fit for purpose’ is very much underlying the fundamental rail structure.”

As a common carrier, the railroad is not allowed to turn down any freight as long as it follows federal regulations, Vest and Haka say.

“If all that’s met, we have to handle it,” Vest said. “We’re not going to do anything that isn’t safe. But I would think there would be enough lead time for the receivers to build their infrastructure,” and at that point the railroad would be upgrading its own infrastructure.

Haka noted that if the railroad’s upgrades are not complete by the time the companies are ready to begin shipping oil, he believed the railroad would have the ability to delay transport until the safety upgrades are complete.

“They can’t force us to do something we just can’t do,” Vest agreed. “But that doesn’t happen a tremendous amount of time in our industry. There would probably be some legal discussions because we’re a common carrier, ‘Why can’t you handle it?’ “

The specifics of what would need to change in order to handle crude oil are hard to pin down at this point, they said.

“If we were to actually do crude oil at those volumes, we’d have to do fundamentally different things,” Haka said. “For one thing, I slow them down. I don’t operate anything over 25 mph.”

Vest said the traffic will dictate, as it does with most things in the rail industry, both the physical and policy changes.

“We’re thinking about that, but it’s going to be tied to the volumes,” he said. “We don’t want a mishap with that any more than anyone else, we’re responsible for it. We understand the angst that the community has … they want job growth, they want a strong economy, they want the community to generate a potential future for their children. … We can be a part of that, in giving the community a new industry, but what we’ve also heard is they want it done safely and sustainably.”

“We can handle crude oil safely,” he continued, “the challenge that we have is the folks who don’t want this to happen will grab any issue to stop it. What we’d love to happen here is that, as this EIS process unfolds and this process happens in Grays Harbor County, is just a factual discussion.”

Emergency response

Safety has been a key concern in that discussion. Last week, Haka said, rail officials met with local fire chiefs and discussed spill response plans.

“We don’t carry much hazardous — it’s not that we don’t have emergency response plans, we do, it’s just maybe not as obvious,” Haka said. “Now we’re going to start meeting with them regularly.”

The railroad has so far refused to release those plans publicly, citing safety concerns. Hoquiam Fire Department Chief Paul Dean said the chiefs had met with rail officials and have another meeting scheduled, but still have not received a response plan.

Whether emergency responders need notification when crude oil is moving through their areas is a discussion at both the state and national level.

“That’s an evolving topic,” Vest said. “We’ll absolutely be complaint” whatever is decided.

He did question the benefit of notification for too many trains.

“If we tell them every time we send a train through, what are they going to do with that information?” he said.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, some East Coast fire departments asked to know about shipment schedules, Vest recalled.

“The railroad said, ‘OK, what’s your fax number, we’re going to send you every way bill for every train that comes through here.’ … After three days, they said ‘Stop.’ “

In the event a spill does happen, Vest said the railroad is heavily insured and looking to build a future locally. “It’s a genuine concern: ‘Are these people part of our community, are they here for the long term?’ And we are,” he said. “These (railroads) aren’t commodities we buy and sell.”

Olympic Gateway Mall

Research is currently under way for traffic improvements for the Olympic Gateway Mall and East Aberdeen, where numerous rail crossings often snarl traffic.

The study, conducted by the Grays Harbor Council of Governments, uses mostly grant funding with a match from the Port.

If rail changes are needed in the future, Vest said the railroad may be willing to partner on a solution, but wouldn’t fund it entirely.

“Forget crude oil, that kind of needs to be addressed,” he said of the crossings. “The railroad itself doesn’t have an ability to fix that. It’s going to have to be a public/private effort to fix that. … The way we approach public/private partnerships on our railroad, and I think the fair way to handle it, is: ‘Who benefits?’ … That’s a great way to start the discussion on who pays how much.”

“It’s an emotional subject,” Haka added, “we would not force anyone to close a crossing, but that mile and a half, it’s dangerous and we know that.”

Brionna Friedrich: 360-537-3933 or bfriedrich@thedailyworld.com and @DW_Brionna on Twitter.


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