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Photo of railroad tracks from bridge in downtown Denver
Flammable Liquid Rail Tank Cars under Millennium Bridge, Downtown Denver

Mirroring national trends, Denver has seen a dramatic increase in rail shipments of flammable liquids, principally crude oil, related liquids and ethanol.  Denver’s Office of Emergency Management reports that hazmat shipments by rail in Denver rose from 23,000 carloads in 2011, with tank cars of crude oil near zero (less than 1%), to over 80,000 carloads in 2014, with over 15,000 tank cars of crude oil (18%).  Most of the hazmat loads are flammable liquids, including crude oil, ethanol and oil -and gas-related liquids.  Projections for 2015 declined to 70,000 carloads of hazmat and over 9,000 tank cars of crude oil, but overall we can expect our nation and our city will continue to see a heavy reliance on rail to transport hazardous materials in the future.

Communities throughout the country have been experiencing emergencies as a result of the increasing transport of these materials by rail.  In a small town in Oregon along the Columbia River Gorge 16 cars derailed from a train hauling 96 cars of crude oil.  Several of the cars leaked over 40,000 gallons of oil, fueling a blaze and flowing into the town’s sewer system and the river.  Homes and a school were evacuated and fortunately no one was injured.  Firefighters and equipment had to be called in from Portland and across the region to assist the local volunteer fire department.  I-84 was closed, snarling traffic on Oregon’s only east-west interstate. (Maybe some of you remember in the 1980s a truck hauling a US Navy torpedo tipped over in the I-70/I-25 Mousetrap during morning rush hour and gridlocked Denver for most of the day.  We were lucky to have no fatalities or infrastructure damage.)

Denver, like the Columbia River Gorge, sits along rail lines important for transport of petroleum products to refineries, ethanol for fuel blending and all other things shipped by rail.  US DOT has charted the rise in recent years in rail transport of oil products and ethanol and they expect large shipments to continue.  Even as accident rates decline, the higher volume of shipments means accidents will continue.  DOT estimates that over twenty years on average 12 or more crude oil or ethanol derailments will occur each year.  Over a third of these are expected to involve release of some product and a fire.  This Oregon derailment was one of those.  All of these have the potential to be catastrophic, depending on the right circumstances.  Close proximity to people and to public infrastructure (roads, bridges, homes and buildings, light rail, etc.) are among such circumstances.

This is why I have focused on railroad safety. I have and continue to work with City agencies responsible for public health & safety, infrastructure and development.  I have involved the Colorado Municipal League, worked with the National League of Cities and filed rulemaking comments to the US DOT, some of which were cited by DOT when they issued new rules last year.

Milestones 2015   

  • Informal internal meetings convened with city agencies to review rail transport in Denver and consider options to better protect public safety
  • Led an effort for Colorado Muicipal Leage to adopt a resolution calling for stronger federal laws
  • Worked with the National League of Cities to adopt similar resolution
  • Filed comments during U.S. Department of Transportation that were incorporated into a major overhaul of its regulations
  • US Department of Transportaiton orders upgrades to rail cars and new operation requirements
  • Congress incorporates new requirements in transportation bill
  • DOT orders upgrades to rail cars and new operational requirements

2016 Milestones

  • Mayor Hancock forms multi-agency working group to review emergency response capabilities and development review process for future projects near rail lines
  • Increased collaboration among the parties to the working group resulted in identificationof emergency and planning response improvements
  • New procedures for development review.
  • Mayor's Railroad Safety Working Group issues report.