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Oil train classroom-on-rails offers enhanced training to deal with increased crude shipments

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ALBANY, N.Y. - A rolling classroom on rails, complete with four tanker cars and a flatbed rigged with a variety of valves and fittings, made a whistle stop Thursday at the Port of Albany as part of a multi-state tour providing enhanced safety training to first responders in light of increased shipments of North Dakota crude oil.

The railroad is conducting a three-day training program at Albany's Hudson River port before taking its Safety Train to other cities along a route through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

"The vast majority of the oil we move is on this route," said Skip Elliott, CSX's vice-president for environment and safety. "We do anticipate it growing. There's been an energy boom in this country."

CSX transports crude oil produced in North Dakota's Bakken Shale region to coastal refineries. Elliott said the railroad moves two or three oil trains a day, each with about 100 tanker cars holding 30,000 gallons each. He said that amounts to about one per cent of CSX's overall freight traffic.

While the U.S. oil industry maintains that Bakken crude is no more dangerous than some other cargoes, the federal government issued a safety alert in January warning the public, emergency responders and shippers about the potential high volatility of crude from the Bakken oil patch.

Oil trains in the U.S. and Canada were involved in at least eight major accidents during the last year, including an explosion of Bakken crude in Quebec that killed 47 people. Other trains carrying Bakken crude have since derailed and caught fire in Alabama, North Dakota, New Brunswick and Virginia.

"We train thousands of emergency responders each year, but in this tour we've augmented the training to discuss crude by rail," said Carla Groleau, spokeswoman for CSX Transportation.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has taken steps to address the danger posed by oil trains, including increasing emergency preparedness training, conducting more inspections of train cars and tracks, and calling for tougher federal regulations. A training exercise with a simulated tanker fire was conducted at the Albany port last month.

Residents of an apartment complex near the port have voiced concern over the hundreds of oil tanker cars rolling past their homes. Dorcey Applyrs, the Common Council member representing port-area residents, said Thursday that the CSX training program helped calm her fears.

"We hear a lot of myths and misconceptions about the safety of oil transport," Applyrs said. "I feel more comfortable answering questions from residents now that I know about safety measures that are in place."

In the CSX program Thursday, 45 firefighters and other emergency responders received classroom instruction on various hazardous materials carried by rail. They had a detailed tour of the Safety Train's locomotive and three types of tank cars, as well as hands-on experience with various types of valves and fittings.

Elliott pointed out the enhanced safety features of a newer tanker car, including thicker walls, heavy steel shields at the ends to resist punctures, and protective housings to prevent valves from breaking and leaking in a rollover derailment. The Association of American Railroads has recommended stronger federal safety standards for tanker cars, which are owned by shippers and leasing companies, not the railroads.

"This is all part of the natural evolution of tank car safety," Elliott said.

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