The know-nothings are in charge

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, May 19, 2014

Does anyone feel, as I do, that railroads have lost the message on crude oil by rail to the know-nothings and their best friends, the politicians? So far as I know, in the 150-year-plus history of railroads and crude oil, there has been but one truly horrible accident, last July’s explosion in Lac-Megantic, Que., that killed 47 people. The tragedy is almost incomprehensible in its terror and destructiveness. But this is also true: It came about by a chain of circumstances that would be almost impossible to repeat. A crude oil train was left by its engineer on a grade without enough hand brakes applied to keep it still should the airbrakes fail. The locomotive caught fire, and firefighters shut down the locomotive without, apparently, telling anyone in authority on the railroad of that fact. With no air being pumped into the brake line, the brakes bled off, and the train went on its fateful way.

Since then, there have been derailments, involving fire and explosions in some cases, in Aliceville, Ala.; Philadelphia; Casselton, N.D., and most recently Lynchburg, Va. As the instances compound, the newspaper feature stories accumulate. The impression I get is that none provides really new information and that all lack any meaningful input from railroads. The result is an information vacuum that leaves people feeling as they are on the verge of some horrible catastrophe every time a oil car goes past them. A sort of low point was reached last week when columnist Sara Foss of the Schenectady, N.Y. Daily Gazette said that she agrees with a local environmental group that transport of oil by both rail and pipeline is too inherently dangerous. I thought to myself, okay, Sara, how will oil get to refiners, by highway? And what are the safety implications of that? And also Sara, would you have you and I get to work in the future by bicycle and rickshaw, because renewal energy is surely not going to fuel your car anytime soon?

The reality is somewhat different. Aside from Lac-Megantic, not a single person has been killed or even sprained a wrist as a result of the derailment of a crude oil train the past year. But the Sara Fosses of this world are left to utter their inane opinions with no pushback from the railroad industry.

The analogy that comes to my mind is the deaths in 1982 by poisoning in Chicago of seven buyers of Extra-Strength Tylenol. Someone had taken bottles from the store shelves, inserted cyanide, and returned them. The manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, recalled every bottle of Extra Strength Tylenol in the U.S., not just those in Chicago. It was a $100 million hit to JNJ’s bottom line. Then it reintroduced the product in tamper-resistant packaging and within a year regained its huge market share among pain killers.

This was a textbook case of successful crisis management that the Association of American Railroads and its member railroads would have been wise to remember and consult. They did not, but in fairness, neither AAR nor its members any longer have the public affairs capabilities that would permit them to. That is, there is no long anyone smart enough or brave enough to try doing what JNJ did.

For instance, why didn’t a Class I chief executive make the rounds of the large, influential newspapers, arguing the case to the editorial writers? Why didn’t the railroad PR shops go to regional newspapers to tell them how they interface with local first responders on awareness of hazardous cargoes and training on dealing with derailments? Its members let AAR do the talking, and AAR responded with firecrackers when howitzers were necessary. Now the know-nothings control the debate. It is a really sad outcome. — Fred W. Frailey


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