A Railway Catastrophe in the Making

New York Times | March 12, 2015 | Post by Eleanor Randolph

So far, Americans have been spared the kind of terrible tragedy that occurred two years ago in the small tourist town of Lac-Mégantic in southern Canada. On a midsummer morning, a row of tank cars filled with crude oil suddenly slammed into the center of town and exploded, killing 47 people in what bystanders called “a tsunami of fire.”

So far, such a horror has not happened in the U.S., even as more and more of these matte-black tank cars loaded with crude oil roll along the country’s railway lines. Instead, these trains have been exploding recently in less populated areas with no reported human casualties. Those massive fireballs, however, should be a warning to the White House, the crude oil industry and anybody who lives or works near a railroad track.

More to the point, what if these tank cars ignite as they roll through an American city or past a school or along a vital waterway? In the last few weeks, there have been four derailments of 90-plus tank car trains in less populated areas of the U.S. and Canada. In each case, the cars derailed, ruptured and then exploded. Fires burned for several days after one derailment last Saturday in northern Ontario. A derailment near Galena, Ill., last week burned for days. And in Boomer, W.Va., where an explosion and spill occurred last month, one resident described a blast that soared over 100 feet in the air and sounded much like an “atomic bomb.”

Authorities in these mostly-rural communities have managed to move residents and workers to safety. But that would be harder along railroad lines running through urban areas. In Albany, New York, for example, tank cars move within a few blocks of the state Capitol.

The White House is expected to come up with new rules this spring for transporting crude oil. The administration could require those transporting the oil to convert to new tank cars called CPC-1232. There might be new speed limits. Neither change would be enough. The new tank cars are the very ones that exploded in the most recent derailments. And in West Virginia, the train was only going about 40 miles per hour.

It is time for safety advocates, the industry and the administration to sit down and figure out the right way to ward off a potential disaster. They should consider requiring shorter trains to carry crude oil shipments. A mile-long string of 100 tank cars is harder for the railroads to manage than a more compact train.

They should also require the oil industry to make crude oil less explosive. There are ways to remove the most combustible elements from the cars before they start the long trek across the countryside.

The tank cars — even the newer ones — should be retrofitted to be stronger and less prone to rupture in a derailment.

And Congress should impose a tax on crude shipments to create a new insurance fund and to help pay for the maintenance of railways.

Shipments of crude oil by rail in the U.S. have soared to over a million barrels a day now. That is a lot of dangerous and explosive material to be riding the nation’s rails.

http://takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/03/12/a-railway-catastrophe-in-the-making/?_r=0

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A Railway Catastrophe in the Making
PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE works to promote safe, sustainable energy and environmental justice.  We aim to engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry's assault on the people of Albany and our environment.