No oil-train risk analysis performed, Union Pacific safety chief tells Colorado lawmakers

Railroads questioned by committee members over safety issues, Uinta Basin Railway proposal

By: - July 25, 2023 4:00 am

A train of mostly empty tank cars derailed outside Suncor Energy’s oil refinery in Commerce City on June 16, 2023. (Chase Woodruff Colorado Newsline)

The Union Pacific railroad’s top safety officer told Colorado lawmakers on Monday that the company hasn’t “specifically” analyzed the risks of increased traffic from a proposed Utah oil-train project.

Rod Doerr, Union Pacific’s chief safety officer, spoke at a hearing of the General Assembly’s Transportation Legislation Review Committee, where he and other railroad executives faced questions about a range of rail safety issues.

Public concerns about railroad safety have grown more acute in the wake of this year’s East Palestine disaster and the Biden administration’s approval of the Uinta Basin Railway, an 88-mile rail extension in eastern Utah that could drastically increase the amount of hazardous materials transported on the Union Pacific line through western and central Colorado.

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

Doerr and representatives from BNSF, Colorado’s other major freight rail operator, touted their industry’s safety record, which has steadily improved since the 1970s. Freight rail remains a much safer mode of transport for hazardous materials than trucks, they argued, in large part because of technological innovations and voluntary actions taken by railroad companies.

“Before we run these hazmat-type commodities, we’re making sure that we have the curvature figured out, whether we’re up against bodies of water, important infrastructure, we’re in the middle of downtowns,” said Doerr. “That takes a heightened risk, and we will voluntarily take speed out of the train to further control these forces.”

Rod Doerr, Union Pacific’s chief safety officer, testifies against a proposal to require at least two people make up freight train crews on March 6, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

But in response to a question from state Sen. Lisa Cutter, a Jefferson County Democrat, Doerr said that he wasn’t aware of any specific assessment of the risks posed by the Uinta Basin Railway’s construction.

The project was approved by the federal Surface Transportation Board in December 2021 and its backers say they aim to begin construction next year, though it has yet to secure billions of dollars in financing.

“Relative to the Uinta crude, specifically, we have not run a hazard analysis, at least that I’m aware of,” Doerr said. “I think it is fair to ask our hazmat team, that doesn’t work for me, and I will reach out to see if we’ve done any modeling or study work, and try to get that back to you.”

State-level measures

Monday’s hearing marked the first time the debate over the Uinta Basin Railway — which has drawn opposition from Colorado local governments and members of Congress — reached the halls of the state Capitol.

The state has limited authority over many aspects of freight rail operations, representatives from the Colorado Department of Transportation told lawmakers, since the power to regulate interstate commerce lies with federal agencies like the STB and the Federal Railroad Administration.

But as congressional efforts to strengthen rail safety regulations remain stalled, leaders of two unions representing Colorado rail workers urged committee members to move forward with legislation where possible. That could include rules to limit train length, fine railroads for blocking grade crossings and mandate the installation of sensors that detect issues with rail cars before they cause an accident.

The rail industry’s shift to longer, heavier trains and fewer crews to operate them, said Paul Pearson of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, are among the “unsafe, profit-driven practices that have put workers and communities at risk.”

Trains of tanker cars sit idle on railroad tracks in Grand Junction on May 16, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

“Derailments are preventable,” Pearson said. “Colorado can require more trackside detectors and prohibit long train usage. We can do this in a way that satisfies all parties, hopefully.”

The last significant change to Colorado rail safety laws came in 2019, when Democratic majorities approved a requirement that railroads maintain two-person crews on all freight trains, over the opposition of Republicans and railroad companies.

Becky English of the Colorado Sierra Club, which has joined other environmental groups and Eagle County in suing to overturn the STB’s approval of the Uinta Basin Railway, told lawmakers that they have a role to play.

“Can you imagine the impacts to the Western Slope if catastrophe were to occur? How much risk is acceptable to us?” English said. “I am asking you today to begin a serious, bipartisan discussion about this proposal, and our state’s response.”

The Transportation Legislation Review Committee is a so-called interim committee that meets while the General Assembly is not in session, and has the authority to recommend and introduce legislation that will be taken up in next year’s regular session. The committee will meet again on Aug. 21 to discuss the drafting of specific legislative proposals.

SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Chase Woodruff
Chase Woodruff

Reporter Chase Woodruff covers the environment, the economy and other stories for Colorado Newsline.

MORE FROM AUTHOR