For activists intent on stopping all use of fossil fuel, train safety has become their cause du jour. After all, if you can block transport of fossil fuels, you can choke off their use.
If they succeed, it's not clear how we will heat and light our homes and schools, get to work, run businesses, keep the hospitals operating, stock grocery stores or harvest crops — but apparently, that's an inconvenient question for another day.
America's rail system has undergone a transformation over the last 40 years.
In 1970, the once grand railroads of the northeast were dilapidated; the iconic Penn Central railroad was in collapse. The PC was losing over $1 million a day; poorly trained dispatchers lost trains throughout the system.
When the flow of red ink became a flood, managers started deferring maintenance; derailments became the norm. To reduce accidents, speeds on large sections of track were reduced to 10 mph. Freight traffic slowed to a crawl. It was the low point of the American rail system.
Today, the picture is different.
According to the Federal Railroad Administration, U.S. trains carried goods and people more than 740 million miles last year. Rail has once again become a major commuter option, logging more than 20.5 billion passenger miles in 2012.
As technology and oversight have improved, the railroads have amassed a good safety record, even as rail traffic has increased.
The FRA reports that in 2012 there was one derailment for every 582,167 miles traveled, one fatality per 82 million miles, and 2.65 accidents at rail crossings for every million miles traveled.
Our state Department of Transportation notes, "Rail is a safe and efficient way to move both people and goods. Freight trains reduce the number of large trucks on our congested highways, and for passengers, it is more than 23 times safer than traveling by car."
Why are these statistics important? Rail traffic plays a major role in trade, and trade plays a major role in Washington's economy. Per capita, we are the nation's top exporter.
The potential is even greater today because Montana and Wyoming coal, which is cleaner than many other varieties produced around the world, is in demand.
Exporting coal from Washington and Oregon would add more than 11,000 new jobs and $115 million in payroll. Just one oil terminal in Vancouver could generate up to 250 construction jobs and up to 120 permanent full-time positions, primarily from the local community. If we don't build the shipping terminals here, the trains will simply go through Washington to Canadian ports, taking the jobs with them.
To enhance safety, railroads have invested heavily in technologies that provide advance notice of potential problems. Some of these technologies include wheel impact detectors, wheel journal detectors and detector cars that X-ray the rails for metal defects. These and other technologies have significantly reduced derailments over the past 20 years.
The Association of American Railroads says that, in 2012, 99.9977 percent of all rail-shipped hazardous materials, including oil, reached its destination without an accident-related spill and that railroads spill less liquid hazmat product than trucks or pipelines.
Multiple federal agencies regulate the movement of hazardous materials by rail, including the Federal Railroad Administration, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Transportation Security Administration. The federal government also requires railroads to route hazardous materials on lines posing the least safety and security risk.
Will all this guarantee there will never be an accident? No.
But it's important to keep things in perspective so we can make informed judgments about issues that are important to us all.
Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state's chamber of commerce. Visit http://www.awb.org.