When Oil Goes Off the Rails
U.S. and Canadian railways moved 50 times as much crude oil in 2013 as they did five years earlier. Yet in too many places this monumental undertaking has proved terrifying: Trains have derailed, causing explosions, fires, evacuations and trails of pollution.
More crude spilled in U.S. rail accidents in 2013 than in the previous 37 years combined. The shale oil from the vast Bakken formation that straddles the U.S.-Canada border has proved extraordinarily volatile. A train full of oil derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July 2013, killing 47 people and destroying much of the town. In the U.S., scary accidents have shaken up places in North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Virginia.
To reduce the danger, two things must be made safer: the train cars that carry oil and the tracks themselves. So far, railway companies have wanted to focus on the cars because they lease rather than own most of them and don't have to pay for the upgrades, whereas the tracks are their responsibility.
More rugged cars are less likely to burst in an accident. Upgraded models, available today to transport crude, have thicker shells than the older ones, plus special protection at both ends and for the top fittings.
Canada has mandated that all crude be carried in such cars by 2017. The U.S. should do the same. A helpful provision in a Senate appropriations bill would give the Department of Transportation until Oct. 1 to announce new standards.
That won't mean guaranteed safety, though. When a train derailed in April in Lynchburg, Virginia, the car that burst, caught fire and spilled 20,000 gallons of oil into the James River was a newer model.
That's why railway companies also need to ensure that trains are kept on the tracks.
Speed limits -- such as Canada's 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour) limit in areas near cities and drinking water -- can help. But they aren't the whole answer, either. The train that crashed in Lynchburg was traveling at just 24 mph.
Broken rails and other defects in tracks are the most common causes of derailments. This makes it imperative for Congress to approve the section of the Senate appropriations bill that provides $3 million to expand automated track inspections along crude-oil routes. With those resources, the Transportation Department would be better equipped to see that rail companies are maintaining tracks to standards that were improved on March 24.
Should those rules, thoroughly enforced, prove too weak to prevent calamity, regulators will need to tighten them further. Railway companies can be expected to resist. They note, repeatedly, that 99.9 percent of dangerous goods are delivered by rail without incident.
But that isn't comfort enough when more and more mile-long trains are carrying explosive crude to refineries on the East, West and Southern coasts, through Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Seattle and hundreds of other cities and towns. Safety improvements have to catch up with the rapid growth in oil transport. The U.S. shouldn't wait for a disaster like Lac-Megantic before it speeds them along.
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David Shipley at email@example.com