Davis at Greater Risk for Oil Train Explosion


Richard 2nd St. oil crs 1-9-14 15By Alan Miller

Central Davis could be incinerated. 1.5 million gallons of highly flammable crude oil will roll through Davis per train, cutting through the core of our commerce and population. Directly adjacent lies the Olive Drive Neighborhood, the Nishi Gateway, the Mondavi Center, Solano Park, the Old East Davis Neighborhood, and Downtown Davis.

These oil trains will run as close as 50-feet from the nearest residential structures, and less than one block from core downtown businesses. Maybe the odds are one in a million, maybe one in a billion, that a given train will derail and ignite on any given day at any one point on the railroad (such as Davis).

But rest not easy on those odds, for twelve hours later another 1.5 million gallons of fuel will roll through Central Davis, another one in one billion chance of incineration. That chance of incineration will recur over 700 times a year, perhaps for the next several decades. Over one billion gallons of flammable crude annually. Hell on wheels.

The Union Pacific rail line already carries a plethora of flammable liquids and dangerous chemicals. Rail is the safest form of transport for these materials. But oil trains are a unique animal, and the proof is in the pudding.

Oil train accidents have increased several-times-over in the last five years, largely in response to the sheer quantity of oil being shipped. In the last three years there have been over a dozen derailments resulting in tanker ruptures, several of which ignited in catastrophic explosions. For an idea of the catastrophic magnitude, search the web for “oil train explosion video”.

The deadliest of these explosions occurred in the center of downtown La Magentic in eastern Canada. The burning lake of oil released flowed through the town for several city blocks, engulfing buildings and leaving 47 people dead, some burned so intensely there were no remains.

The Benicia project EIR states the “odds” of a derailment/spill, but this vague average ignores the specific risks at any point along the rail line. Davis has a much higher than average chance for a derailment due to an inherent weak link in the rail infrastructure. This weak point is a left-handed, low-speed crossover between the main lines. It lies a few hundred feet east of the Amtrak passenger platform, adjacent to the PG&E substation near 2nd & L Streets.

Prior to the early 1990’s the railroad operated one direction per track on the right, so mainline trains could not access this crossover. However, in the early 1990’s, the track was upgraded for Capital Corridor service and trains now travel on either track in either direction. Trains cross over between tracks at new crossover points throughout the corridor, all of which are rated for 45 mph operation and protected by bi-directional signaling.

However, the crossover switch in Davis is a legacy item from Southern Pacific days, originally installed to allow trains coming off the West Valley line (that runs along H Street) to turn and travel east. Since trains coming off the West Valley line were already coming around a slow curve, the crossover presented no inherent safety hazard at the time.

Today, however, mainline trains coming from the east on Track #2 can travel on the left-hand track and enter this crossover, and trains from the west on Track #1 may enter this crossover as well. Freight train top speeds east of Davis vary from about 50 – 65 mph, while curve speed is 30 mph. While all other mainline crossovers on the line are designed for 45 mph operation, the aforementioned crossover is rated at just 10 mph!

What makes this crossover so dangerous is the extreme difference in speed rating between the mainline and the crossover. This is compounded by the fact that train engineers see a “red-over-green” signal, just like the signal for crossovers on this line that are rated at 45 mph. Train engineers are sometimes lulled into the hypnotized rhythm of mainline rail operations, and must remember that this one crossover is the 10 mph exception.

Remembering this is an engineer’s job, but that doesn’t mean they will always remember.   About 10,000 freight trains pass through Davis each year, and if oil trains run, there will be over 1000 more. If only 1% of trains pass through this crossover, and 1% of engineers forget the crossover speed, that predicts that about one train per year will blow through the crossover at full speed.

The threat from having a low speed crossover between higher-speed main tracks is real and known. Several rail accidents have happened due in this scenario. On February 26, 2012, such an accident in Ontario, Canada killed three members of the train’s crew. Safety board officials called into question the practice of allowing low-speed crossovers between much-higher-speed mainline tracks.

While the Davis crossover is used for relatively few freight trains, the crossover in Ontario similarly was used relatively rarely. This fact was sited as a contributing factor in the accident, as it was speculated that the train crew may have used that crossover so rarely that they simply forgot the posted speed.

Trains passing through the Davis crossover at excessive speed is not theory. In 2006, I witnessed a westbound unit liquid-petroleum-gas (LPG) train pass through this 10 mph crossover at 47 mph! The scene was terrifying. As the engine entered the crossover, the headlight swung like an inverted pendulum to the right, then back left. I thought the engine was going to tip-over the motion was so extreme. The engine and tank cars whipped side to side on their wheel trucks, accompanied by the sickening sound of screeching metal. Oddly, the train eventually slowed but did not stop.

I thought at the time I had witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime event. However, in 2009 I witnessed an eastbound train pass through the 10 mph crossover at mainline speed. The engineer immediately realized his mistake, as he “dumped the air” (made an emergency brake application) and the train quickly ground to a halt. That train also carried LPG cars.

In neither case did the train derail, but a rail track engineer related to me, “I’m surprised they didn’t derail”. How many more trains have nearly derailed at this crossover that I did not witness? Without a derailment, the crew could continue on and not report the incident, as the event recorders (railroad black boxes) are only checked if there is an accident or suspicion of misconduct.

My attempts to report these “near misses” as near disasters to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) were met with terrifying bureaucratic incompetency. The NTSB claimed they couldn’t investigate since no actual derailment occurred, while the FRA simply found an unrelated typo in a Union Pacific manual and closed the case.

The railroad views such incidents as “crew error” while failing to acknowledge the inherent hazard of the crossover. Only the crew itself has the power to slow those 1.5 million gallons of crude should their train be routed through the crossover; there are no automatic-override safety devices to slow such a train. Blaming humans for human error does nothing to make the railroad itself safer.

Positive Train Control (PTC) is a system that would bring a freight train to a stop should it approach a speed restriction (such as the crossover) too fast. PTC was due to be implemented by 2015. However, PTC implementation requirements have been delayed to 2020 at least. Freight railroads are claiming a 40% failure rate with PTC testing in 2015. The technology is simply not ready.

To run oil trains through Davis with this crossover in place — and without PTC — would be the height of brazen corporate aloofness. This crossover must be upgraded to the 45 mph standard if oil trains are to run before PTC is fully implemented.

I wrote a comment letter expressing the nature of the crossover hazard for the project EIR. The response was bureaucratic jargon speaking of “unavoidable impacts” and “insignificant risks”. This language says nothing as far as acknowledging corporate awareness of the specific danger in Davis. Fixing this crossover is not optional. This is a disaster waiting to happen.

“Everyday Davis citizens” (read YOU!) must act – not just the handful of Davis anti-oil activists. One last chance to act remains.

The final hearing on the project begins Monday, February 8, 2016 at 6:30 p.m. at the Benicia City Council Chambers, Benicia City Hall, located at 250 East L Street, Benicia. Sign up to speak all day at the same location. Hearings may be continued Tuesday evening and beyond if all who wish to speak cannot be heard Monday.

Come an hour early with a protest sign against the oil trains, or about boycotting Benicia and not buying Valero gas if they continue to ignore the very real safety risks in Davis and other “up-rail” communities. I hope to see you there!


About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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19 thoughts on “Davis at Greater Risk for Oil Train Explosion”

  1. Alan Miller

    Please come to Benicia tonight if you can.  The citizens of “uprail” cities must protest what Benicia is forcing upon us with token safety measures.  Valero, Benicia and Union Pacific must act (invest) to upgrade the crossover to the 45 mph standard — this very real danger to Davis has been lost in the EIR shuffle.  This isn’t about commerce, this is about safety.

    Here are the instructions for public comment in Benicia tonight and this week:

    The City of Benicia Planning Commission will hold a formal public hearing to receive comments on Monday, February 8, 2016 at 6:30 p.m. to consider the Final EIR and a Use Permit for the Crude by Rail project. The agenda and staff report are available. Please click here.

    In anticipation of the number of speakers, additional Planning Commission meetings to receive comments are scheduled for February 9, February 10 and February 11, 2016. These additional meetings will only be held as necessary to hear public comment – if all members of the public who wish to speak on the FEIR and the Use Permit have been heard, for example, during the meeting on February 9th, then no further public comments would be heard during subsequent meetings. All meetings will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the City Council Chambers, Benicia City Hall, located at 250 East L Street, Benicia, CA 94510.  The City encourages interested persons to attend and provide oral comments to the Commission. 

    IF YOU WISH TO COMMENT DURING THE HEARING: Due to the large amount of public interest with this project, the City will be instituting a sign up system in order to speak during the public hearings. Interested members of the public will be allowed to speak in order of sign up. Sign ups will be available on the day of the meeting(s) from 8:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. at the Community Development Department. If you are unable to come in person, please call 707-746-4280 to be added to the list. At the hearing, please go to the sign up table just outside of the Council Chambers. Your name will be called in the order in which you signed up. You do not have to sign up in order to speak.  However, you will not be called on until those who have signed up have spoken.  In order to accommodate the public, we have arranged for overflow rooms in City Hall with the hearing streaming for you to view and listen. You can also view the event live from the City’s website.

  2. Alan Miller

    Link to video of Oil Train Explosion in North Dakota.  It happened just outside of town, but it could have easily happened it town.  Imagine these explosions at the south end of K Street in Davis, adjacet to where the crossover described in the article lies.


    One train derailed and the oil train didn’t have time to stop and ran into the first train, rupturing oil tankers and causing the explosions. There are plenty more videos of our train explosions from the last few years on line, because there have been several of them!

  3. Biddlin

    Alan’s right about the dangers of this 10 mph crossover and oil/chem trains, in general. I lived in a trackside home for some years and was very nervous about the safety of trains.  After research and discussions with friends in the industry, my fears remain unallayed.

    1. Alan Miller

      I believe the time for written comment on the recirculated Project EIR is long past, and I know of no official channel through which to submit written comment.  The person in charge of collecting comments was Amy Million, AMillion@ci.benicia.ca.us.

      However, you are welcome to annoy their City Council at the following addresses:

      epatterson@ci.benicia.ca.us, mhughes@ci.benicia.ca.us, tcampbell@ci.benicia.ca.us, aschwartzman@ci.benicia.ca.uscstrawbridge@ci.benicia.ca.us

  4. Alan Miller

    Hello.  I don’t know if anyone is still listening, but an update . . .


    I went to the hearings last night with a neighbor.  The hearings went on for many hours.  There was NO public comment.  One Benicia Planning Commissioner, Stephen Young, had literally hundreds of questions, and took up at least three if not more hours of the hearing.


    None one person wishing to speak against the oil trains complained.  His questions were flat excellent.  He grilled Valero, Union Pacific, city staff and consultants as if he had done his graduate thesis on the subject.  He had read every detail and every counter argument and grilled all mercilessly.  Thank God for this man.


    There were over a dozen people from Davis.  This was heartening, although they were mostly anti-oil activists and the lack of the “Everyday” people from Davis understanding the depth of this threat was disappointing.  There should be 500 – 800 people from Davis there, everyday people.


    Benicia is doing everything they can to make public speaking against the project by uprail opponents to the project impossible.  Davis people called at 8:36am yesterday and were place around #90 to #110 on the list.  Valero had employees in line at 8:30am who packed the list with proponents in Benicia, and then they went to the people on the phone.


    Though Mr. Young was welcome, people dropped like flies as the hearing showed no sign of waining, nor having public comments, after four hours.


    The applicant speaks first tonight, 15 minutes, then it goes to questions.  Then it goes to public comment.  When will that be?  Who the F— knows?!?!?!!!


    You don’t lose your place in line day-to-day.  However, if your name is called and you aren’t there, you drop off the list.  So maybe the best thing to do is watch on the video feed and see how things are going and drive down if your place is known.  Keep in mind a LOT of people probably won’t be present when their name is called.  You can still sign up to speak each night on cards, but you may not be called.


    I’ll head down late tonight and hope to be able to speak.


    I did get some things accomplished.  I was able to get copies of my article to some of the opponents, and handed one personally to Planning Commissioner Stephen Young.


    I also handed one to Union Pacific’s representative.  I said, “have you read this?”.  He said no.  I said, “You need to read this.  There is a very real hazard near downtown Davis, and it needs to be addressed.  I twice witnessed the railroad, Union Pacific, almost derail a train here.  You need to take this back to Omaha.  No matter what the outcome of these hearings, this problem needs to be fixed.”


    He seemed a bit taken aback by my forthrightness, but when a hazard like this exists and is ignored by Union Pacific, the NTSB, the FRA and everyone else, truth must be spoken to power.  Union Pacific (power) just needs to fix this.  No one is forcing them (obviously), but UPRR should recognize the inherent hazard, and fixing it the right thing to do.


    Y’know, BEFORE the wreck.

    1. Alan Miller


      But no Keystone Pipeline.  I get it.

      A very odd comment Frank Lee.  This isn’t about commerce or oil in my mind, it’s about safety.  And the Keystone Pipeline will run N-S through the midwest.  This has nothing to do with the Keystone Pipeline.

      For the record, I’m for the Keystone Pipeline.  Not that I’m “pro-oil”.  I’d love to see the country ween itself off oil; however, I recognize that is a several generation change — one cannot simply choke off the best transportation option for oil and think that will stop oil use.  This country runs off oil — for better or for worse — well, for worse, but it’s a 50-100 year change.

      The anti-oil activists I see at the hearings will cringe at my stance I’m sure.  But a pipeline is way better than rail transport.  I applaud their goal, and I applaud they are damn near the only people taking action against the oil trains — a safety issue in my view.

    1. David Greenwald

      It’s an interesting issue. From where I sit, other than a few activists, I haven’t seen a huge surge of interest on the issue at least on the Vanguard.

    2. Alan Miller

      Y’know, in the East Bay, people build hospitals, police stations, multi-story apartments, sorority houses and stadiums right on top of the Hayward Fault.  And they are aware of it.

      If it’s there and it doesn’t explode or shake today, we are lulled into a sense of safety/denial.  There are some parts of the human psyche that are just plain dysfunctional.

      Likely if/when oil trains start running, it will cease to be an issue.  They’ll just pass through, mostly unnoticed, and most likely they won’t derail.  Or the dealer deals us the joker card one day and central Davis is incinerated.

  5. hpierce

    As I see it, there are two issues… one is the “new oil trains”… I’ll leave that to others…

    The second is the condition of the tracks… THAT is something we definitely should be fighting for… the railroads were “gifted” much land by the people (federal government) historically… it is untaxed, as far as I know… the RR’s should be held accountable, as “stewards”, to ensure that the tracks are brought up to proper standards and maintained… there are many deficiencies, some of which Alan points out…

    Two new ‘oil trains’ per day pale in comparison to the passengers on trains, or the potentially lethal freight already running thru town… instead of banning the new oil shipments, I’d support requiring UP to upgrade all their lines on the route to minimize the risk to exposure for not only the proposed freight, but all the existing freight (including toxic gasses, flammables, etc.) and passenger traffic.

    1. Alan Miller

      HP, the Union Pacific tracks are actually in excellent condition, having been upgraded and maintained by UPRR since the start of the Capitol Corridor service, largely with state dollars.  The 10 mph crossover is the one very real hazard that needs to be eliminated.  Second I would place the Road 32-A crossing which has had numerous car strikes, one of which derailed a train and the car’s fuel tank exploded.

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