Photo depicting a cargo train traveling underneath Seattle, with downtown in the background.

Could It Happen Here? Train Safety Still a Risk Under Downtown Seattle

by Alex Garland

Seattle is a train town. Some might not hear the train’s horn or its rumble over the tracks, but it’s there, carrying our garbage, our food, and even the crude oil that still powers much of our lives. Walk out of Costco in SoDo, and you might see an oil train rumbling by; go to a Mariners or Seahawks game, and you might smell a hundred garbage cars on the rails. You might also cross the bridge over the tracks at Carkeek Park or wait as the crossing arms go down at Olympic Sculpture Park. With over 600 trains carrying hazardous materials running through our city every year, what keeps Seattle from experiencing a disaster like Lac Megantic, Quebec, or East Palestine, Ohio, or, most recently, on the Swinomish Reservation near Anacortes, Washington? So far, it’s been the work of rail safety experts and activists, safety-minded train crews, and a few federal safety regulations. 

Rail safety concerns in Seattle have been raised by many, especially since the production of Bakken crude became more common in the mid-2010s. One of those still raising concerns is Herb Krohn, Washington State Legislative Board director and local chairperson for Union Pacific in the Seattle subdivision. Krohn has been a full-time union representative since 2000 and has spoken out about rail safety issues and lack of industry oversight.

“We handle everything, there’s chlorine gas, ammonia, propane. Every commodity goes through here,” Krohn stated, noting that it’s much more than Bakken crude oil. He explained that one car of chlorine gas could make a train a “key train,” which is a federal designation for trains carrying hazardous materials.

Aerial photo depicting rail cars on tracks.
Rail cars fill the tracks at the Interbay rail yard in Seattle, Washington. (Photo: Alex Garland)

Federal Oversight Under the U.S. Department of Transportation

Under the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is responsible for ensuring the safe transportation of hazardous materials throughout the United States’ rail transportation system. Under the authority delegated by the Secretary of Transportation, the FRA’s Hazardous Materials Division administers a safety program that oversees the movement of hazardous materials, including petroleum, chemical, and nuclear products. 

One of the FRA’s regulations, § 174.26 Notice to train crews, requires train crews to have a document that reflects the current position of each rail car containing a hazardous material. The train crew must update the document to indicate changes in the placement of a rail car within the train. Additionally, a member of the crew of a train transporting hazardous materials must have a copy of a document for the hazardous material being transported and the requirements in § 172.604(b) applicable to emergency response information.

The FRA’s most recent update is the 2016 Federal Railroad Administration Guidance for Developing an Atmosphere-Supplying Emergency Escape Breathing Apparatus Program. This guidance provides recommendations to railroads for developing and implementing a program to provide atmosphere-supplying emergency escape breathing apparatuses (EEBAs) to employees who may be exposed to hazardous atmospheres during emergency situations. The guidance covers topics such as EEBAs selection and maintenance, training, and record-keeping.

Aerial photo depicting an Amtrak train running alongside a city street in Seattle.
An Amtrak train can be seen on the tracks as it moves along the waterfront in downtown Seattle before entering the Great Northern Tunnel. This is the same route trains carrying oil cars take. (Photo: Alex Garland)

Hazardous Materials on the Train Tracks

While most of the cargo running through Seattle is harmless, rail transportation of hazardous and flammable liquids poses serious public health and safety risks in the event of an accident or release. Three main types of incidents can occur related to train transport of these materials: a pool fire, a vapor cloud explosion, and toxic vapor dispersion.

A pool fire is a fire that burns from a pool of vaporizing fuel, while a vapor cloud explosion occurs when a flammable gas or vapor mixture is released into the atmosphere and ignited. Toxic vapor dispersion can result in acute or short-term exposures to chemicals that can quickly overwhelm humans.

Different hazardous liquids have varying hazard distances. Anhydrous ammonia produces the greatest hazard distance overall among hazardous liquids, with an immediate danger to life and health (IDLH) up to 11,167 feet for a single car release. Propane, on the other hand, produces the greatest explosion hazard distance at 569 feet, primarily due to its weight. Ethanol produces the greatest fire hazard distance at 350 feet, and Bakken crude oil produces the greatest flammable vapor cloud distance at 227 feet.

To mitigate or lessen the risk of rail accidents involving hazardous and flammable liquids, some safety measures have been put in place by federal government regulations. Key trains carrying hazardous materials have been mandated to operate at no greater than 50 mph, reducing the impact of derailment in the event of an accident. In urban areas in Washington, key trains are limited to a maximum speed of 35 mph.

Tank cars used to carry hazardous and pressurized gas commodities on trains, including crude oil, gasoline, ethanol, sulfuric acid, and propane are designed to protect the contents, keep them at a certain temperature, and prevent contamination, ensuring safe arrival at their destination.

Tank car designs also include safety measures to prevent the contents from leaking out in the event of an accident, such as a derailment or collision. After several explosion and fire accidents in 2013 involving unit trains carrying Bakken crude oil in DOT-111 and similar tank cars, USDOT and the rail industry began the process of upgrading the safety features of tank cars carrying this type of crude oil and other flammable liquids.

Between 2013 and 2018, the rail industry produced a safer type of tank car, the DOT-117, which has various features that make it less likely to break open in an accident and more resistant to heat damage in a fire. In early 2019, there were no DOT-111 cars in use for Class 3 flammable liquids, such as Bakken crude oil, in the U.S. Rail carriers that transport Bakken crude and other Class 3 flammable liquids in Washington use only DOT-117 cars or other cars that meet even higher safety standards.

Photo depicting a metal plaque commemorating the completion of the Great Northern Tunnel.
A marker on the South Main Street Bridge commemorates the completion of the Great Northern Tunnel in 1905. (Photo: Alex Garland)

Safety Hazards in the Heart of the City

A derailment in some areas of Seattle could see a spill into Puget Sound or Elliott Bay. As the derailment in Anacortes showed, a spill from just the train engine can release thousands of gallons of diesel, putting delicate ecosystems at risk, from water quality impacts to harming local wildlife. Depending on the type of material spill, possible health hazards range from skin issues to cancer

The Great Northern Tunnel was completed in 1905 and is a 1-mile railroad tunnel running directly under downtown Seattle. The double-tracked rail line runs along the Puget Sound by the Olympic Sculpture Park, enters the tunnel just before Pike Place Market, and exits just north of King Street Station before the tracks run beside T-Mobile Park and Lumen Field. As the tunnel is over 115 years old, it has no fire suppression or life safety systems, and once in the tunnel, there are no exits other than the way one entered or ahead at the other end.

Krohn also raised concerns about communication issues in the Great Northern Tunnel and the lack of safety regulations on railroads. “There’s really no occupational safety on the railroads for railroad workers until somebody gets killed,” he said.

While the danger of derailments in the city is real, the causes are often human-oriented and avoidable. Krohn spoke out about the sustained fatigue that rail workers suffer due to irregular work schedules, arguing that the railroads need to be stripped of their antitrust protections and that a coalition needs to be formed to force reforms.

He cited shippers, rail workers, and citizens who are angry as an impetus for change. “You can put together a coalition on rail safety and economic sustainability or security to stop these abusive practices … and start forcing reforms.” 

Krohn is not alone in his belief that the state needs to adopt more stringent safety regulations. Mike Elliott is a 16-year veteran locomotive engineer for BNSF and elected chairman of the Washington State Legislative Board of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), which represents roughly 750 union workers at BNSF, Union Pacific, and Amtrak. He has also spoken out on the importance of safety measures for railway transportation, emphasizing the need for preparedness in the event of spills or accidents. 

Elliott, who heads a group dedicated to railway safety in Washington State, highlighted recent accidents, such as the Mosier, Oregon, derailment fire, as evidence of the need for increased safety measures. Speaking on the contingency plans railroads have in place, Elliott stated, “They have to be able to handle spills. And part of that is in drill requirements. We need to look at other safety factors, such as train lengths, as being problematic, and, in fact, right now there’s a bill in the legislature here that we have introduced to limit train length sizes in Washington State.” Despite pushback from the railroad industry, Elliott is confident the state has the legal precedent to pass such laws. “We know that’s bullshit,” he said, referring to the industry’s claim of federal preemption. Elliott noted that the state has already passed laws to ensure worker safety during transportation, including a minimum two-person train crew requirement and a transportation safety bill.

The issues the railway safety group is currently working on, according to Elliott, include the safe leave bill and the train length limit bill. “These issues that we’re working on this year are very important,” Elliott said. “We need to ensure that our railways are safe and that accidents are minimized as much as possible.”

Photo depicting a cargo train entering a tunnel underneath Seattle, its towering buildings in the background.
An oil train enters the Great Northern Tunnel in downtown Seattle. A BNSF owned and operated track, the Great Northern Tunnel was completed in 1905 and has yet to receive fire suppression systems. (Photo: Alex Garland)

Emergency Planning and Contingency Plans

According to the FRA, there are emergency plans in place, like the facility response plans for Interbay rail yard, geographic plans for North Puget Sound, and local emergency response plans for Interbay and South Seattle, with annual exercises for each. These plans, along with the State of Washington Oil Spill Contingency Plan (updated in 2021) and BNSF HazMat Plan, will aid in emergency response efforts in the event of an incident.

The Washington Department of Ecology published a 641-page 2020 Washington Rail Transportation Safety Study that outlines identified concerns and suggestions for mitigation and prevention. Washington has approved the railroad oil spill contingency plans for BNSF. 

The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), which was enacted in 1986 as a part of the Superfund Amendment and Reauthorization Act, mandates pre-incident planning and the establishment of state and tribe emergency response commissions that are responsible for appointing local emergency planning committees (LEPCs). In August 2013, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) published circular OT-55N, which directed AAR member railroads to provide information about hazardous commodities transiting a given community or area. LEPCs are required to update their plans annually, which must include identifying facilities and transportation routes of extremely hazardous substances, describing emergency response procedures on- and off-site, designating a community coordinator and facility coordinator(s) to implement the plan, outlining emergency notification procedures, describing how to determine the probable affected area and population by releases, describing local emergency equipment and facilities and the persons responsible for them, outlining evacuation plans, providing a training program for emergency responders (including schedules), and providing methods and schedules for exercising emergency response plans.

Rail spill response planning is also regulated by the Northwest Area Contingency Plan (NWACP), which ensures a well-coordinated response that is integrated and compatible between local and area resources and jurisdictions. Local stakeholders can participate in the development of the NWACP through Area Planning Committees. Under the 2015 Oil Transportation Safety Act, the Department of Ecology now requires rail lines to have contingency plans that guarantee they can respond to a spill quickly and effectively. But again, this only applies to oil, not other hazardous materials transported through Seattle.

Photo depicting the northern entrance to the Great Northern Tunnel with buildings from Pike Place off in the distant background.
The northern entrance to the Great Northern Tunnel is just before traveling directly under Pike Place Market and the rest of downtown Seattle. (Photo: Alex Garland)

BNSF’s boilerplate response to the Emerald’s questions regarding rail safety in Seattle says it is “committed to safely and securely delivering hazardous materials and has invested in infrastructure, technology deployment, rigorous employee and first responder training, improved operating practices, and community safety initiatives.”

Yet when pressed about Bakken crude by rail in the Great Northern Tunnel, the general director of public affairs for BNSF, Lena Kent, was unsure if Bakken crude was still transported through Seattle. Photos taken by the Emerald, however, indicate that Bakken crude is being transported through the city.

Photo depicting oil tank cars lined up near downtown Seattle.
Thousands of rail cars move near the stadiums every year in Seattle. Often these trains are carrying hazardous materials, like this train carrying Bakken crude oil, indicated by the red-and-white 1267 sign on the tankers, near where thousands of people are gathered. (Photo: Alex Garland)

While BNSF says it regularly inspects all the components of its network and utilizes advanced equipment and technology to ensure the safety of communities and the environment, derailments occur. Krohn criticized the FRA for allowing railroads like BNSF to skip walking inspections and instead run geometry cars through to do inspections. He explained that this practice is cheaper but does not find all possible defects. The lack of safety regulations and oversight has raised concerns, as there is nothing monitoring the freight on a train, and there are no federal requirements or regulations regarding any track-side heat detectors.

Cory Gattie, a public affairs specialist at the FRA, stated that the FRA has been pursuing a multifaceted approach to ensure the safe transportation of hazardous materials by rail. The department’s primary goal is to prevent accidents that may result in hazardous material releases and to mitigate their severity. The department, through its Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and Federal Railroad Administration, has developed specific regulations governing the transportation of hazardous materials, including proper marking and placement of rail cars, documentation requirements for train crews, and maintenance standards. The majority of hazardous material shipments arrive safely at their destination due to these regulations.

“The only federal mandatory reporting requirement for hazardous material traveling by rail is outlined in 49 CFR 174.312, which requires railroads to provide information to the appropriate state agency prior to operating high-hazard flammable trains,” Gattie told the Emerald. While railroads are generally not required to notify state or local officials directly, they may provide information to first-response organizations and emergency planning committees.

There are no city, state, or federal regulations that state that BNSF must alert city officials of hazardous cargo manifests before its shipments enter city limits. In 2015, then-Mayor Ed Murray and City Councilmember Mike O’Brien passed a resolution out of committee (City of Seattle Resolution 31604) regarding rail safety, asking BNSF for the following: worst-case scenarios for a crude oil train derailment, proof of the railroad’s catastrophic insurance coverage, comprehensive emergency response plans (which BNSF has now made available to the public), analysis of the railroad’s safest hazardous materials routes, the installation of safety and ventilation systems within the Great Northern Tunnel (which hasn’t happened), the restriction of crude oil transport during big events at the stadiums, and “full responsibility for the risk [Warren Buffet, Berkshire Hathaway, and BNSF] impose on Seattle residents.”

Washington’s Attempt at Mandating Rail Safety

The state of Washington has implemented regulations requiring facilities that receive crude oil by rail to submit advance notice for each new shipment scheduled for delivery. Facilities are required to submit notice through the web-based Advance Notice of Oil Transfer System. The information reported must include the contact information of the reporting facility, region of origin of the crude oil, railroad route taken to the facility within the state (if known), scheduled delivery date and volume in barrels of the delivery, API gravity of the crude oil, designation of the crude oil as sweet or sour, and vapor pressure of the crude oil.

The State Emergency Management Division, the Utilities and Transportation Commission, and any county, city, tribal, port, and local government emergency response agency can access data on rail shipments of crude oil that enter Washington. These users do not submit transfer notices but are authorized to view them. The information is exempt from public disclosure and cannot be shared with the public.

Historically, bulk oil transfers contributed to the majority of spills in state waters. The state’s oil transfer rules help prevent these kinds of spills, and these rules apply to regulated facilities and vessels that deliver oil in bulk over or near navigable waters of the state.

According to Gattie, “it is likely that other hazardous materials are transported via the tunnel and track, but the state only receives reports of crude oil shipments through Chapter 173-185 WAC. While each train must keep a list of hazmat on the train and location/car, there is no dedicated advance notice system for other hazmat being transported along the rails.” Trains commonly carry multiple cars of various hazmat products, and the federal government has regulations in place for flammable liquids, but not necessarily other hazardous materials.

Photo depicting the side of a red Seattle Fire Department vehicle with an attached sign that reads, "Tunnel Rescue Team."
A vehicle belonging to the Seattle Fire Department’s “tunnel rescue team,” which is part of the unit that would respond to a rail disaster in the Great Northern Tunnel. (Photo: Alex Garland)

In response to inquiries about the Seattle Fire Department’s (SFD) approach to emergency incidents in the Great Northern Tunnel, Captain Brian Boulay provided some guidelines for response, including information on the specific challenges of responding to an incident in the tunnel.

“There is no fire suppression or life safety system in the tunnel, just a portal on each end,” Boulay said. “A hundred years ago, these were not major considerations, and the tunnel has been in constant use the entire time, moving around 50 trains a day through.”

Boulay noted that despite the lack of safety systems in the tunnel, SFD has a dedicated tunnel rescue team, which includes a minimum of 10 specially trained members and a tunnel rescue program manager on duty 24 hours a day.

“If there is an incident in the tunnel, we would automatically dispatch our entire tunnel rescue team and any other resources typically required for an incident,” Boulay said.

Boulay also provided a list of standard response steps that would be undertaken at most tunnel incidents, including dispatching units to both ends of the tunnel for reconnaissance, establishing a command structure and communication link, and determining whether additional resources and technical teams are required.

“Of course, other resources will almost certainly be involved, from SPD to the media to City Light and SPU, depending on the emergency,” Boulay said. “These incidents can be much more involved and take longer than a more typical fire in a house or apartment, and expectations will need to be adjusted appropriately. A unified command structure with representatives from all participating agencies will be central to the efficiency and effectiveness of our response.”

Boulay also addressed the potential for evacuations in the event of an incident, noting that “evacuations are on a case-by-case basis” and that “many derailments in cities around the world do not create an acute evacuation situation.”

“If a catastrophic derailment were to occur near a stadium, SFD and SPD would work together with workers from the rail company and the stadium to mitigate acute hazards as well as facilitate orderly evacuation,” Boulay said. “The quicker we are able to accurately assess the situation, establish clear/reliable communications with responsible parties, and get emergency resources to where they need to be, the better the outcome.”

Boulay emphasized that emergency incidents are dynamic and no two are the same and that specifics are tricky when it comes to tunnel responses. However, perhaps with a combination of federal regulations, Washington State Department of Ecology guidelines, BNSF’s own emergency preparedness, and the Seattle Fire Department’s training and skill, a major rail disaster could be averted or, if not, at least have lessened impacts. Despite all the planning and preparation already in progress, more could always be done, including fulfilling local citizens demands that BNSF place lifesaving and fire-suppression systems in the Great Northern Tunnel; supporting politicians who aren’t connected to major rail industry companies; joining coalitions of concerned citizens who vote for progressive rail safety legislation; and building a small amount of personal awareness when near rail infrastructure, including the knowledge of where the trains are relative to your evacuation route.

This article is funded in part by an Environmental Justice Fund (EJ Fund) grant through the City of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability & Environment (OSE).

Alex Garland is a photojournalist and reporter. With a degree in emergency administration and disaster planning from the University of North Texas, Alex spent his early professional career as a GIS analyst for FEMA. Follow him on Twitter.

📸 Featured Image: A train, with rail cars similar to those that transport Bakken crude oil, carries its cargo under downtown Seattle through the Great Northern Tunnel. (Photo: Alex Garland)

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