Editorial: Missing links on the rails

Times Union | July 22, 2014 | Editorial


Rail safety inspections and crude oil stabilization efforts are not keeping up with the increase in train shipments.

Photo illustration by Jeff Boyer / Times Union ()


For residents living along the rails, their safety remains a primary concern.

Is it any wonder the ponderous freight trains laden with crude oil are the source of continuing concern for residents at the Ezra Prentice Homes in Albany, and elsewhere along the rails in the Capital Region and the state?

Residents still do not have a satisfactory answer for how officials will keep a disaster like the one last year in Lac-Megantic, Quebec — where the town was incinerated and 47 people were killed — from happening to them.

This week brings further analysis of two significant obstacles to safe crude oil transport: Safety inspections of trains and tracks have not kept up with the crude oil industry's growth, and the crude itself is not being adequately stabilized before shipment.

Safety inspections by the Federal Railroad Administration cover about 1 percent of the nation's freight and passenger tracks and equipment, according to a 2013 Government Accountability Office report. The state supplements that federal work.

Yet, the state's efforts fluctuated while crude oil shipments boomed from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 400,000 carloads in 2013. According to the Times Union's Brian Nearing, the state went from inspecting 6,500 track miles in 2000 to 3,200 miles in 2008 to 6,000 miles in 2012.

But inspectors were not looking at as many rail cars or critical equipment; 9,400 freight car inspections in 2008 dropped to 3,150 by 2012, while brake inspections fell from 350 to 148.

Of further concern is the refusal by the state Department of Transportation to release the location of the state's inspections, or the rail companies involved, claiming it's actually federal data. According to Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, "Aside from a specific federal exemption, if the DOT has possession of a record, whether or not the DOT produced that record, state Freedom of Information Law would apply." New Yorkers clearly have a right to know where tracks have been inspected and which railroad companies have safety concerns to address.

Almost as troubling may be the revelation in Hearst NewspapersJennifer A. Dlouhy's report that the equipment to stabilize crude oil before loading it into tank cars isn't as plentiful around North Dakota's Bakken fields — the source of the crude oil flowing here — as around long-standing operations like those in Texas. Whether such equipment may be required under new federal rules will be part of a trade-off by the Obama administration that balances safety against potential negative impacts on this major player in the country's economy.

So far, the scales are tipped too far toward industry. It's time government officials act decisively in the interests of the Ezra Prentice residents and millions of other Americans who live and work near our nation's rails.

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Editorial: Missing links on the rails
PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.