Railroad Commissioner Discusses Increased Freight Traffic

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Railroad Commissioner Discusses Increased Freight Traffic

Premiere Date: 
August 1, 2014

Jeff Plale, the state railroad commissioner, speaks on the hike in rail use.

 

Episode Transcript: 

Frederica Freyberg:

Now to other news of the week, one measure of a rebounding economy is the appearance of more freight train traffic. Consider this; in 2008, there were 9,700 crude oil tanker cars traveling the Wisconsin rails. Last year there were 345,000. The state railroad commissioner, Jeff Plale, tells us there will be 650,000 by the end of 2014. And more trains lead to more train accidents. Three separate accidents just last weekend left three people dead. This concerns the commissioner. Jeff Plale joins us now in Milwaukee. And thanks very much for doing so.  

Jeff Plale:

My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Frederica Freyberg:

So on these oil carloads full of this oil out of North Dakota, where do they run through Wisconsin?  

Jeff Plale:

Well, they take different paths. And not-- Just to make a quick correction. Not all of that projected 650 will come through Wisconsin. Some of that goes out to refineries out west. But anything that comes through Wisconsin heading to refineries, much of it runs down along the Mississippi River, along the Burlington Northern rail line. Much of it traverses the state on Canadian Pacific. And that line comes from La Crosse over to Columbus, down to Milwaukee and then points south. So those are two of our busiest lines when it comes to crude oil. Now, keep in mind, too, we have crude oil coming through. We also have, on these same lines, an awful lot of frac sand leaving the state. So just the sheer volume of rail activity is just-- It's just exponentially higher.

Frederica Freyberg:

So historically, has the state ever seen such a dramatic increase in traffic on the rails?

Jeff Plale:

Boy, not in, I think, anybody's current lifetime. There was a point back in the late '70s and early '80s when folks were wondering if the industry would even continue to exist. But it is really-- It has really blossomed, and we've got train lines that have been vacant for decades that are now seeing daily activity. You have train lines that used to be 10 miles an hour that they've now increased the speed to 40. The amount of investment that has been made in the rails in Wisconsin just in the last, oh, gosh, I want to say four years is in the tens of millions of dollars. I was joking with somebody the other day who said, you know, four years ago I didn't even know what frac sand was, and now I see it go by my house every single day. And it's really true.

Frederica Freyberg:

Now, in terms of the crude oil going through, I know that some cities and towns along the route are concerned about safety, especially after that horrific accident in Canada about a year ago.

Jeff Plale:

Right, right.

Frederica Freyberg:

47 people were killed. What role does the railroad commissioner's office have in ensuring safety on the rails?

Jeff Plale:

Well, since that event happened in Quebec, there has really been a refocused effort on crude by rail safety. And my office works very closely with the emergency management and the director over there. The director there, he and I have known each other nearly 20 years, and it just amazes me that his predecessors and my predecessors have never really sought to share information and to work on these issues together. At the federal level, there's the Federal Rail Administration and then an agency called PHMSA the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Administration. They-- Among these four agencies, we're having regular conversations, because I wish we could point to best practices and say this is how we've done it in the past. We're really making this up as we go. As the rules are promulgated at the federal level, those come to the state level and it's up to us to figure out how we comply, how local municipalities comply, what information is shared, what information is proprietary. So there's a lot of unanswered questions, if you will, that we're trying to deal with.

Frederica Freyberg:

So in your view, are emergency management plans kind of successfully in place at this point to deal with accidents, spills or fires?

Jeff Plale:

Oh, I think so. I think southeast Wisconsin has some of the best EMS services around. And clearly, you know, in other parts of the state the local communities are working with the railroads. The railroads have been very, very supportive in making sure that first responders get training. They will do on-site training. They have a huge training center out in Pueblo, Colorado that they've sent a lot of folks to. So it's something everyone takes very, very seriously. You know, rail transport is still the absolute most safe way to transport anything. And the statistic is true that 99.997% of shipments make it from point A to point B without incident. But when something does go wrong, boy, does it ever, and we need to be prepared for that.

Frederica Freyberg:

All right. I think, Jeff Plale, we need to leave it there. But thanks very much. We'll all have our eye on the rails.

Jeff Plale:

Very good. Thank you. 


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