The number of oil trains has fallen in the last year along with the price of crude oil, and so has the number of accidents that kept oil trains high on the public agenda.
But oil-train economics and safety were on the mind of U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan (R., Pa.) on Friday when he made a fact-finding tour of the Eddystone Rail Co., the Delaware County railroad unloading facility that handles mile-long "unit" trains that deliver North Dakota crude to the region.
The congressman, whose district includes the Delaware County waterfront, paid his first visit to the facility that opened two years ago at Exelon Generation's Eddystone power plant.
"The economy of this region is so tied together," Meehan said. The $172 million rail-unloading facility sends most of the oil by barge to the Monroe Energy refinery in Trainer, owned by Delta Air Lines.
What Meehan heard is that business could be better. The number of oil trains nationwide is down 18.5 percent from a year ago, according to the Association of American Railroads. The global collapse in crude-oil prices has made imported seaborne petroleum more competitive, displacing domestic crude delivered by rail.
Jim McClintock, an oil-industry worker who found a new career as rail services supervisor at Eddystone, thanked Meehan for his interest in supporting the area's refineries, but said domestic oil markets needed a boost.
"Now we'd like you to work on world economics with the crude price," he joked.
Aside from crude-oil prices, the Eddystone operators told Meehan that rail traffic faced a serious bottleneck that inhibits growth of industries along the Delaware River waterfront.
Jack Galloway, president of Canopy Prospecting Inc., which is partners with Enbridge Inc. in the Eddystone Rail project, said industrial traffic on the rail spur that serves the Delaware County waterfront was limited because the trains had to run on three miles of SEPTA's Airport Line, which could only accommodate 100-car freight trains between 12:30 and 4:30 a.m., when passenger service was idle.
Galloway said the "SEPTA curfew" limited the growth prospects for his rail-unloading facility, as well as Braskem's polypropylene plant in Marcus Hook and the Sunoco Logistics Partners Marcus Hook Industrial Complex. All are served by the Chester Secondary spur, owned by Conrail.
He said officials had discussed building a $31 million dedicated freight line adjacent to SEPTA's Airport Line, to avoid the restricted passenger route. But who would pay for it or how it would be financed was unclear.
SEPTA General Manager Jeffrey D. Knueppel said the Airport Line can accommodate short freight trains in the 25-minute windows between scheduled passenger trains, but the long oil trains would interfere with passenger service to the airport.
"We're not trying to be obstructionist," he said.
An alternative freight route to the waterfront might involve restoring a little-used spur called the 60th Street Industrial Track, which circumnavigates Philadelphia International Airport. But that route conflicts with plans to expand the airport's runway system.
Meehan listened intently to Galloway's pleas. "The bottom line is, how we can continue to make this a viable location for principally an energy economy that benefits the entire region," he said.
Meehan said he remained concerned about the safety of oil trains, which were involved in a spate of fiery accidents, including a 2013 crash that killed 47 people in Canada.
"While this local facility has a high level of safety built into it, the question about how the oil transits from North Dakota to when it pulls into the gate here is another thing we want to stay on top of," he said.