The Dangers of Hauling Crude Oil by Rail

Much has been written over the past few years about the many hazards associated with transporting crude oil and other dangerous goods by rail. Curtis Tate of McClatchy Newspapers, Washington Bureau, recently wrote one of the better articles I have read on the subject – “Trains Plus Crude Oil Equals Trouble Down the Track”.

Tate wrote,  “American railroads moved only 9,500 cars of crude oil in 2008 but more than 400,000 in 2013”. He pointed out that government, the railroad industry and shippers have been playing catch-up to long overdue safety improvements because the older rail infrastructure could not safely handle the new products and loads. Weakly-built DOT-111 tank cars and deteriorating tracks, ties, railroad bridges and rail beds have all contributed to major derailments, spills, explosions and fires. Weak regulation and enforcement of rail safety measures by the federal government, coupled with the rail industry’s focus on the bottom line and boosting stock ratings have resulted in significantly decreased safety on the tracks.

Railroaded Stop-Oil-by-Rail logoTate quoted House Representative Michael Michaud who said, “Sometimes it takes a disaster to get elected officials and agencies to address problems that were out there.” One of the many major derailment disasters during the past few years that has caught the attention of governments and industry is the derailment and associated spill, explosions and fires in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec on July 6, 2013, that killed 47 people, leveled much of downtown Lac-Mégantic, and seriously damaged the environment.

The Lac-Mégantic disaster certainly triggered discussion and debate on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border regarding the abysmal safety record of the rail industry. In response, there have recently been some modest improvements in both countries; however, there is a long way to go to make the rail system safe enough to transport crude oil and other dangerous goods. Tate quoted environmentalist John Wathen, “The repairs I see them making right now are more like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.” Many railway safety experts think it will take more disasters or bigger disasters before government and industry seriously address rail safety, regulation and enforcement. Larry Mann, principal author of the U.S. Federal Railroad Safety Act, was quoted by Tate, “It may not happen today or tomorrow, but one day a town or a city is going to get wiped out.”

In spite of the Lac-Mégantic disaster and many others, the rail industry continues to resist necessary changes to improve rail safety and to increase transparency. The rail industry on both sides of the border insists on protecting what they refer to as security and commercial advantage by not sharing real-time information on what dangerous products are being hauled through our cities and towns , when, and how much. Residents and businesses have no idea what is rolling down the tracks through their communities. As well, railway corporations insist that the federal government maintain sole responsibility for railway safety, so they can continue to ignore state, provincial and local government safety laws. In the U.S., Tate indicated, “The dominant Western carriers, BNSF and Union Pacific, joined by the Association of American Railroads, sued California over a state law that requires them to develop comprehensive oil spill-response plans.” Railway corporations have enjoyed a relatively lax regulatory and enforcement regime under both the U.S. and Canadian federal governments, and why would they want that to change?

I highly recommend you read Curtis Tate’s entire article. Also visit this Railroaded link for more information on hazards associated with hauling crude oil and other dangerous goods by rail.

~ by railroaded on January 25, 2015.

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