Rails get real about the dangers of crude

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, January 17, 2014

On January 4, I wrote that railroad executives ought to be running scared, for three reasons: They don’t know why trains of oil from North Dakota are exploding in derailments, they risk losing important new business on account of this, and most of all, because these disasters, one of which killed 47 innocent people, undermine trust in railroads, and trust is almost like virginity, once lost, never regained. To that last reason, forget crude oil—once John Q. Public regards you as the enemy, you’re finished.

The people running the railroads know this, of course, and on January 16 they acknowledged the problem and, more importantly, publicly revealed steps to forestall additional such disasters. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx hosted a meeting of rail and petroleum industry leaders in his Washington offices. Said Foxx afterward, presumably referring to railroads: “The industry, if they are motivated, can undertake preventative steps that will enhance the safety of the movement of these materials across the country.” Indeed the industry can.

Among other things, according to the Wall Street Journal, railroads will devise ways to keep unit crude oil trains out of “high risk areas” and will come up with routing protocols within 30 days to accomplish this. A spokesman for the Association of American Railroads said the protocols will take into account 27 factors. Foxx said also that railroads agreed to “work on a speed-reduction plan” for high-risk areas.

The rail and oil representatives also agreed to come up with new recommendations for tank car fleets within 30 days. The AAR is already on record as supporting new standards for tank cars carrying hazardous materials such as crude oil, including outer steel jackets, thermal protection, full-height head shields. and high-flow pressure-relief valves. According to the AAR, only about 14,000 of the 92,000 tank cars carrying hazmat are so equipped, although sources say about 50,000 cars will be by the end of next year. The railroad group wants those 78,000 cars not meeting such specifications either retrofitted, assigned to other services, or retired. However, it will take the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration until 2015 to institute new rules for tank cars.

This is a start, but only a start. Every city and country through which crude oil trains pass needs a preparedness plan for a spill, fire, or explosion, and railroads should come front and center to help them, as I understand they already are. (Public disclosure: My wife, Catherine Bennett, is vice president of a company that sells fire-fighting materials.)

The important thing is to stay out in front of events, by taking all reasonable steps to assure the public’s safety, by being open and honest in answering concerns that are raised, and by working closely with safety regulators and local officials.

Why do these things? So railroads won’t be hounded to death by letters such as this, that appeared in the Seattle Times on January 17: “Is anyone else troubled that North Dakota Bakken oil is now being transported through the Puget Sound region along our Third World rail transportation system? It seems all too common in the winter months for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks to be wiped out by mudslides. As reported in The Seattle Times, there were two mudslides near Everett on last Sunday alone. There is now one train a day carrying Bakken oil rolling through my hometown of Bellingham, with apparently more headed for an Anacortes refinery. Given where the BNSF tracks run, it’s a good bet that communities all along the Puget Sound are vulnerable. It seems to me that we shouldn’t be shipping highly explosive oil along tracks that can’t even be relied upon to get Amtrak passengers from Bellingham to Seattle.”

This is the voice of someone who has put the railroads in the gunsights as Public Enemy. Railroads don’t deserve such a public image. So it behooves them to work to prevent it from happening.—Fred W. Frailey

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