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The state of Philly trains: 40 million yearly rides and the risk of runaway oil

Philadelphia is a city of old meets new, and Billy Penn will take a look at much of the old. We’re looking to take a deep dive into different facets of the city’s aging — and largely ailing — infrastructure in a new series. We’ll go over the history, the problems and what the city is doing to remedy the situation.

This morning at Dilworth Park, politicians including Ed Rendell, Democratic congressmen Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady and several members of City Council rallied to “Stand Up 4 Transportation.” They suggested to a crowd of about 200 that more money needed to be set aside by the federal government for local and state infrastructure. When Rendell, now the co-chair of Building America’s Future, took the podium, he said Philly needed the federal help to, among other things, “ensure Pennsylvania’s trains aren’t going off the rails.”

Trains and the railroad often convey images of the the Wild West and small towns, but they are hardly remnants of a bygone era. They are used heavily by Philadelphians for travel and transit and by industries for freight. These freight trains have especially turned into a current issue. Environmental activists and public officials are beginning to fear trains carrying North Dakota crude oil to Philadelphia and elsewhere could derail and cause major damage to the communities they pass through.

How safe are Philly’s rail lines? What needs to be fixed? Billy Penn dives into these safety issues, how Philadelphia sees more rail passengers than almost anywhere else in the U.S. and everything else you need to know about trains in the area.

The Problem

In February, the Penn Environment Research & Policy Center released a report detailing the danger presented by trains transporting Bakken Formation crude oil from North Dakota. In Pennsylvania, nearly four million people live within a half-mile of a route where an accident could happen. In the Philadelphia area, the number of people is 710,000, and the area spans from the suburbs to Center City. These trains pass by often, too. About 42 per week travel through Philadelphia.

Serious accidents have recently occurred in Quebec and West Virginia. In 2013, a train derailed, causing an explosion in Quebec that killed 47 people. In February, the same thing happened in Mt. Carbon, West Va. Fortunately no one died, but a fire lasted for days and the oil contaminated drinking water.

Philadelphia knows the risk firsthand, too. Last year, a train derailed on a Schuylkill River bridge, with cars dangling above the river. This year, a train derailed just south of I-95 by 11th Street. No explosions or major spills occurred, but the risk was there.

Not all train problems are about derailments, explosions and possible evacuations. At its simplest, train infrastructure means ensuring there are enough good, safe options for people to take trains within a city or to and from other cities.

Philadelphia is largely successful in this regard. For Amtrak, Philadelphia is the third-biggest hub in terms of passengers, with 4.1 million people coming to or from Philadelphia in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available. Only New York City and Washington D.C. saw more passengers. The Northeast Corridor, which includes Philly, was by far the most-traveled line in the United States, and the Keystone Corridor, the line from Harrisburg to Philadelphia to New York City, was the fourth-most-popular.

SEPTA’s Regional Rail lines stop at more than 150 locations around Philly, and ridership continues to increase. The transit agency reported having 36.7 million riders use Regional Rail in fiscal year 2013-14, an increase of 1.8 percent over the previous year. Another increase seems likely this year. In February, SEPTA reported a 2.6 percent increase in Regional Rail ridership compared to the same timeframe last year.

Here’s a map of the rail lines in Philadelphia. The light green and orange lines represent rails where freight is carried — and as you can see they travel by the Schuylkill and south of Philly. Pretty much everything else is for Amtrak and SEPTA.

What the city is doing

When it comes regulation of freight trains carrying the North Dakota crude oil, Philadelphia can’t do anything except lobby. They’re regulated by the federal government. And the federal government is, well, working on it. This week, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended tank cars on these trains need to be made of material that can better withstand fire. The Board wants existing cars to be retrofitted or replaced.

Lawmakers are asking the Obama Administration to act quickly, including our own Tom Wolf. Pennsylvania’s governor wrote Barack Obama a letter in late February asking for a study of possibly reducing speed limits for trains in urban areas (the limit is currently 40 mph), for higher standards of tank cars and more federal assistance for training PA rail safety inspectors.

Philadelphia doesn’t have to sit on the sidelines entirely. The Penn Environment report recommended community outreach to better educate citizens of the risks inherent from living so close to tracks where these oil trains pass.

For passenger trains, residents want improvement out of both Amtrak and SEPTA, though ridership has been strong. At town meetings in 2009, PennDOT found that people wanted more reliable connections between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, as well as between Philadelphia and Reading and Philadelphia and Allentown.

SEPTA expects to launch its SEPTA Key electronic payment system this year and to have bi-level train cars for Regional Rail by 2018. It introduced new Silverliner V Regional Rail cars in 2010.

By the numbers

5,000 — miles of railroad track in Pennsylvania

70 — Weekly trips through Pennsylvania of trains carrying North Dakota crude oil

42 — Weekly trips through or to Philadelphia of trains carrying North Dakota crude oil

3,000,000 — Gallons of petroleum on a typical train carrying North Dakota crude oil to Philadelphia

710,000 — Philly residents living within a half-mile of tracks carrying North Dakota crude oil and considered at risk if there’s a derailment

6 — Pennsylvania rail inspectors trained with the help of federal resources

4,100,000 — Tickets to or from Philadelphia used on Amtrak in 2013

36,700,000 — Regional Rail trips in in fiscal year 2013-14

40,800,000 — Combined annual total of Philadelphia Regional Rail and Amtrak trips

History

Pennsylvania’s railroad industry started just south of Philadelphia in Delaware County in the early 1800s. The train cars weren’t pulled by engines yet; think mules and horses. By the mid-19th-century, with steam engines now being used, Philadelphia was thriving because of the rail industry. The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad carried one million tons of freight in 1844, becoming the first line to do so in the entire country. Philadelphia’s train industry grew even more with the start of the Philly-based Pennsylvania Railroad in 1846. By 1880, it had become the nation’s largest corporation, with $400 million in capital. It transported 10 percent of all American freight and 20 percent of all American train passengers.

Though the railroad industry will never be what it once was because of planes and cars, Pennsylvania gets more use from railroads than most states. Its 5,000 miles of track rank among the highest in the country, and voluminous traffic from Amtrak passengers, as well as freight keeps the tracks busy.

The money

It’s hard to tell exactly how much money is used annually for train infrastructure. But here are some details regarding agencies that deal with trains.

According to the city’s fiscal year 2016 budget, SEPTA is allocated about $74 million. The Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities gets about $734K from the city and another $1.8 million in federal funding.

In 2013, the state passed House Bill 1060, injecting billions more into state infrastructure, including trains. Part of the bill seeks to provide funding for better train service from Philly to Pittsburgh.

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