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Long trains carrying millions of gallons of crude oil regularly travel over a pair of highly trafficked rail lines in Bucks and Montgomery counties.
A CSX rail line cuts through Lower Bucks on the West Trenton SEPTA line. In Montgomery County, a Norfolk Southern line winds along the length of the Schuylkill River.
But that doesn’t explain to Sellersville resident Tim Court why he’s seeing black tank cars sitting on a seldom-used rail line near his home, about 20 miles from the closest junction with the Norfolk Southern line.
“It seems like a disaster waiting to happen,” Court said.
While he has lived in the area for a decade, Court said he has only recently seen the tank cars on the track that runs through Souderton, Telford, Sellersville and Perkasie. Placards on some tank cars indicate they carry crude oil, liquid propane, and petroleum derivatives, but it isn't clear to Court whether the cars are empty.
The cars have caught the attention of others, too, including an area business owner.
“Every time I look over my shoulder, there’s a vast line of these black cars,” said Bruce Costa, owner of Granite Forest Karate in Perkasie.
Costa said he’s lived in the area for about 25 years, but -- like Court -- only recently began noticing the tank cars. Usually, he sees them parked on the tracks, but he recalled at least one instance where he saw a longer line of the cars moving slowly on the tracks.
Costa said he believes transporting crude oil by rail is a necessary commercial activity, but wonders if the cars in his neighborhood are full or empty and if they're full, what’s being done to minimize the risk of a derailment and spill.
“If they’re going to park this stuff in my backyard, I should be able to ask questions (about safety) and have answers,” Costa said.
Answers about what’s being stored or transported through this part of Upper Bucks aren't readily available to the public or even to emergency responders due to concerns by the railroad companies about security. Those concerns are bolstered by laws that don't require such advance reporting, even to first responders, about what is traveling through their coverage areas.
The key distinctions between the rail line in Upper Bucks and those in Lower Bucks and Montgomery County are the amount of freight traffic they carry and the frequency of inspections performed by regulatory agencies.
CSX and Norfolk Southern are Class I railroads, defined by the U.S. Department of Transportation as rail systems owned by companies with annual operating revenues of $467.1 million or more. The line in the Sellersville area falls into Class III, also known as short-lines railroads, which consists of companies with revenues of less than $37.4 million.
The line Court and Costa are worried about is referred to locally as the the old SEPTA tracks. A regional rail line previously ran through Telford, Sellersville and Perkasie before terminating in Quakertown. Service now ends in Lansdale. SEPTA maintains ownership of the line past Lansdale, but leases it. The stretch from Lansdale to Telford is leased to the Pennsylvania Northeastern Railroad, while the stretch from Telford to Quakertown is leased by the East Penn Railroad.
The Federal Railroad Administration has nine categories of track classifications, which dictate regulations such as the frequency of inspections and speed limits.
Michael Booth, spokesman with the railroad administration, said railroads self-select track classifications and inform federal inspectors, who are responsible to enforce compliance.
This article first appeared on www.buckscountycouriertimes.com
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