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Casey Christie / The Californian

A freight train travels out of the Tehachapi Mountains near Keene in this 2012 file photo.

Second of two parts

Plans for two new terminals in Bakersfield that would transfer oil brought in by rail car to California pipelines -- one north and one south -- have cast a spotlight on two safety issues.

One involves increased train traffic over the congested Tehachapis, one of California's most important east-west freight corridors.

The other centers on the intrinsic safety of moving oil by rail.

Kern County's east-west rail corridor is already nearing capacity as plans are being made for the new terminals. Their thirst for oil would significantly increase freight traffic on the line.

Fortunately, construction may begin soon to bolster rail capacity over the Tehachapi Pass.

The Tehachapi Rail Improvement Project, a $25 million proposal whose costs would be split by the state and BNSF Railway, would "double-track" two segments -- a total of 1.38 miles -- of an existing route linking the Central Valley to points east.

With an average of about 35 trains running over the pass per day, the corridor is already considered to be at capacity, according to the project's environmental review.

While the route carries a 50-trains-per-day rating, rail officials say that it is unfeasible to operate at that volume because it would require almost constant maintenance and leave no room for clearing up accidents. Exceeding the route's existing freight volume would force more trucks onto Highway 58, worsening the area's air quality.

The proposed two rail terminals near Bakersfield would offload 220,000 barrels per day of oil from North Dakota and other "midcontinent" oil producers, then redirect most of that into pipelines leading to refineries in the Bay Area and Los Angeles County.

Already the Tehachapi Pass rail corridor is experiencing congestion and delays, leading state officials to classify the rail upgrade as "critical."

The project's environmental review states the Tehachapi Pass has seen "greatly increased" volume over the past decade because of a increasing amounts of goods moving from the Central Valley to the Midwest and the South.

Studies forecast significant growth in freight traffic along the corridor in coming years.

Based on numbers provided by BNSF, the corridor is expected to carry an average of 40 trains per day by 2015, with intermittent demand for 54 trains per day.

At 40 trains per day, "flow rates and schedule reliability deteriorate and more time is needed to recover from disruptions," the environmental review says.

Much of the route is already double-tracked, meaning there are two sets of rails along most of the pass. Adding more of them would cut back the number of times that trains going east, for example, would have to pull onto side tracks and wait for westbound trains to pass.

Originally, the plan called for five double-track segments and a price tag of $100 million, or four times the existing budget.

That proposal ran into trouble not only because state money was running tight, but because of noise, vibration and other impacts to the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in Keene. CalTrans agreed to downsize the project largely out of concern for the monument.

The Tehachapi Pass route is owned by Union Pacific Railroad, which shares the tracks with BNSF.

To qualify for government financial support, the project is required to begin by the end of this year.

The proposed expansion comes at a time of increased scrutiny in the U.S. of the safety of shipping oil by rail.

Despite what U.S. rail officials say is a continuing decline in accidents, new safety measures targeting oil shipments by train have been proposed in the aftermath of a tragic tank car derailment in early July in Canada.

A train carrying more than 70 oil-filled tank cars was left unattended the night of July 5. It ended up rolling down a hill and crashing early the next morning in the eastern Quebec town of Lac-Megantic. More than 40 people were killed.

Changes suggested in late summer by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration include hardware adjustments such as better puncture resistance on rail cars carrying petroleum and other hazardous materials.

The still-unapproved rules came in addition to emergency orders issued by the Federal Railroad Administration in early August. Those focus on ensuring trains are not left unattended in certain circumstances, and would require train operators to improve communication with dispatchers on, for example, how many hand brakes have been applied when rail cars are parked.

FRA data show there were 10,906 railroad accidents in 2012, and a total of 697 fatalities nationwide. That's 22 percent fewer accidents and 18 percent fewer fatalities than five years earlier.

Just last Thursday a tank car accident occurred in rural Alabama when several cars in a 90-car train derailed and exploded, spilling their crude oil cargo into wetlands and creating a huge fire. No one was hurt.

Pipelines, a much more common and less expensive alternative to delivering oil by rail, also carry safety risks. Last year, a total of 569 pipeline accidents killed 12 people in the United States, according to the Department of Transportation. Compared with 2007, that represents a 7 percent decrease in accidents and a 20 percent drop in fatalities.

Gordon "Joe" Delcambre Jr., a spokesman for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said 2012 was the safest year in railroading history.

"We have a rigorous safety program in place that requires regular audit inspections and enforcement actions, and we're constantly reviewing and reevaluating our work to ensure the public's safety," he wrote in an email.

"Whether they choose rail or pipeline, shippers are required to adhere to stringent safety protocols."

Locally, the Kern Council of Governments has been more concerned with relieving congestion along rails through Bakersfield than with monitoring the safety of oil shipments by train.

But accomplishing one, said the agency's Executive Director Ahron Hakimi, will improve the other.

"Just like on a roadway," he said, "increasing congestion on a rail line or a roadway does increase the likelihood of accidents."

A spokesman for Kern County's Office of Emergency Services said it remains prepared for derailments and other disasters.

"Our local emergency responders are well-versed in how to deal with that kind of accident should it occur," spokesman Sean Collins said.