Crude oil crosses paths with two Philadelphia commuter train lines

McClatchy Washington BureauAugust 19, 2014 

A Norfolk Southern crude oil train snakes its way through Northeast Philadelphia on March 24, 2014. Crude oil trains share track space with Amtrak and commuter trains in different parts of the city, which has become a major destination for crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken region. Five or six loaded crude oil trains traverse the region daily, according to estimates provided by Amtrak and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency has denied open records requests from McClatchy and other news organizations for information about crude oil trains in the state. (Curtis Tate/McClatchy)


Philadelphia’s commuter railroad runs alongside at least three crude oil trains every day on two of its lines, and is looking to separate the freight operations in those places to avoid delaying its passenger trains.

Jeff Knueppel, deputy general manager of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, said that CSX operates an average of two loaded and two empty crude oil trains a day on the West Trenton Line, which the freight railroad owns but the commuter railroad dispatches.

The double-track line, which terminates in West Trenton, N.J., sees 57 commuter trains and more than 20 freights a day, including the crude oil trains. A $38 million project, supported by a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, will build a six-mile-long third track to keep CSX freights out of the way of SEPTA trains.

Knueppel said he hopes the new track will be operational by the end of 2015. The oil trains are going to the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery complex in South Philadelphia, which was slated to close until rail deliveries of Bakken crude oil revived it recently.

A stickier problem, Knueppel said, is SEPTA’s line to Philadelphia International Airport. The city owns the track and paid to improve it for high-speed commuter trains. But CSX and Norfolk Southern both can operate a limited number of freight trains on it, including crude oil trains.

“The issue that’s been the most difficult,” he said, “is on the airport high-speed line.”

Norfolk Southern is already operating one roundtrip every night over three miles of the airport line to reach a new crude-oil offloading terminal in Eddystone, Pa. The facility is designed to receive two loaded crude oil trains a day of 120 cars each, but the four-hour overnight window SEPTA imposes on the freight movements presents a challenge.

Knueppel said Norfolk Southern and CSX had approached SEPTA about running crude oil trains over the airport line in daylight, but the commuter railroad made clear that such operations would interfere with its trains. Moreover, the railroads’ agreement with the city requires that passenger trains be given priority.

“I think they were surprised when we stood our ground,” Knueppel said of the freight carriers.

SEPTA trains operate every half hour from Philadelphia’s 30th Street station to the airport, and Knueppel said the agency would like to offer service every 20 minutes.

He said that the railroads could run more crude oil trains over the airport line, provided they pay for a separate track.

“We’ve made it quite clear that they would have to fund the improvements,” he said.

SEPTA and Amtrak have provided information about crude oil trains in Pennsylvania that state officials have refused to release.

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency has declined open records requests from McClatchy and other news organizations, citing a nondisclosure agreement the agency signed with Norfolk Southern and CSX.

DOT required the railroads in May to furnish the information to states after a series of derailments involving trains carrying Bakken crude.

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