Editorial: Safety stalls on the rails

Times Union | July 16, 2014 | Editorial


The federal government is failing to assure safety as rail traffic surges, or renew other transportation infrastructure.

Photo illustration by Jeff Boyer / Times Union ()


Washington must act before a Quebec-like disaster happens here.

Few priorities are as fundamental to government as ensuring a safe and easy-to-access transportation system.

Yet a year after a crude oil-laden freight train crashed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and flattening the town, the federal government is no closer to protecting neighborhoods and downtowns that, like Albany's, are traversed by rail lines. Nor is the government maintaining the transportation infrastructure essential to the nation's commerce.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has submitted to the White House new regulations on the transport of crude oil, but the Office of Management and Budget has yet to act. DOT mandated that freight rail companies alert states of lengthy crude trains and urged the oldest tank cars be replaced with hardier ones.

What's happening now is sadly predictable:

The oil industry, which owns the tank cars and whose product is driving the increase in freight train traffic, says stronger cars aren't needed.

The rail industry wants stronger cars because it's liable when accidents occur, but doesn't want to pay for them, nor for control technology that could stop a runaway freight train.

Chemical industries, which also use tank cars to transport their products, say they shouldn't have to shoulder the cost of new cars, since it's oil trains that have caused the problems.

Besides Quebec, nine other crude oil-train derailments have occurred in the U.S. and Canada since 2008, with "significant" outcomes like fireballs or environmental damage.

But the nation's transportation problems don't end with the railroads. As roads and bridges crumble, Congress dawdles over preserving our great transportation assets.

It's as though politicians are more concerned about what government isn't than what it is. Conservatives prefer what former President Ronald Reagan said — "...government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." — than what two other Republican presidents did. In 1862, Abraham Lincoln's administration provided $2 billion in bonds to back the first transcontinental railroad, and in 1956, Dwight Eisenhower's $26 billion commitment launched the interstate highway system.

President Barack Obama is trying to shame Congress into renewing the Highway Trust Fund. The House this week passed a gimmicky 10-month fix, which the Senate likely will approve, but it does nothing to assure future years' road and bridge safety. The rail regulatory outlook is similar.

According to Forbes, the freight rail industry has seen profits soar 19 percent since 2009, in what the magazine calls "America's second rail boom." And the years 2008-2013 produced what by some accounts was the largest five-year increase in crude production in U.S. history, with corresponding profits for the oil industry.

The oil and freight rail industries can afford to pay for the solutions to the infrastructure and safety challenges we face. We just need a government willing to offer solutions.

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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.