Crude-by-rail isn’t a safety concern, railroad officials say

Puget Sound and Pacific Railroad officials on Tuesday night said Harborites shouldn’t be worried about the safety of crude-by-rail projects — at least on the the rail shipping end.

In a City Hall meeting of the downtown improvement group Our Aberdeen, Gregory Johnson and Michael Dickerson, lobbed questions at railroad officials Don Seil and Patrick Kerr. Questions covered the railroad’s safety record, the condition of the rail line and the company’s plans to prevent crude oil-related catastrophes, including oil spills.

“The railroad is prepared for all kinds of emergencies, that’s all part of our safety plan,” Kerr said. “We have a contractor in the area if there’s any kind of a spill. And if it’s a smaller spill, our employees are trained to deal with that.”

The conversation quickly turned to the July 6 crude oil explosion in Quebec and the safety of the rail cars used to transport oil, known as DOT 111 cars.

Kerr explained that the railroad doesn’t own the cars that run on the line — they’re rented by the companies shipping goods. But Puget Sound and Pacific only runs trains with cars that meet federal guidelines and railroad employees inspect the car, he said. “Every tank car is under specific safety regulations by the federal government. We don’t develop the federal guidelines, but we do have to determine them.”

Railroads in the state are regulated by several agencies: the Federal Railroad Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission and the Washington State Department of Transportation. Speil explained that nearly every aspect of rail shipping, from train speeds to car capacity, is monitored by some government regulation.

The Puget Sound and Pacific is a class two railroad, meaning trains may only travel 25 mph. But Seil said his company maintains the tracks as if it were a class 3 railroad, which can withstand speeds of 40 mph.

Several of the questions were based on the idea that the railroad is an aging piece of infrastructure not capable of withstanding crude oil transportation — including questions about why the railroad hasn’t started using more modern materials.

Johnson and Dickerson asked the rail officials why Puget Sound and Pacific continues to use wooden railroad ties instead of concrete and steel ties. Seil explained that while concrete and metal are better in some cases, Grays Harbor’s climate makes wood much more practical.

“Concrete disintegrates more easily in wet weather,” Seil said. “And wooden ties are much more functional for this kind of short line operation.”

“It really does not affect the safety of the rail line,” he added.

Puget Sound and Pacific transports about 36,000 car loads of freight each year — 16,000 more a year than in 2009. The company spent about $14 million on capital improvements between 2008 and 2012, and Seil said the company prides itself in using local contractors, such as Rognlin’s Inc., Quigg Brothers Inc. and Vessey & Sons.

About 80 percent of Puget Sound and Pacific’s 34 employees live on Grays Harbor.

The remainder live in neighbouring communities, such as Shelton and Olympia, the company said. The railroad includes about 135 miles of rail. Currently, the company mainly transports automobiles — 11 of which can fit in each rail car — and agricultural products, serving 17 customers at the Port of Grays Harbor.

“The railroad drew people to the area, that’s why it grew,” Seil said. “We need to make sure to have that same dedication to make sure we still have these jobs.”

The conversation also covered rail changes that could improve downtown Aberdeen. Citizens wanted to know what a “quiet zone” is, and how Aberdeen could become one.

Seil explained that this isn’t something that’s determined by railroads — it’s dependent on whether the local government is prepared to make signal upgrades that would allow train drivers not to blow their whistles when approaching an intersection. The process is regulated by the federal government.

The moderators also asked if a pedestrian walkway could be attached to the railroad bridge spanning the Wishkah River. The officials said this won’t happen, as it would bring people too close to the trains and compromise the safety of the bridge.

“The bridge is balanced and it’s movable, it was engineered a certain way,” Kerr said. “It wouldn’t work to just tack on stairs or a walkway. It would really have an adverse effect.”