Recent guidelines for the transport of crude oil by rail car are a step in the right direction, but they are only a step. There remains a long way to go on the journey toward reasonable safety measures and the reassurance of an understandably skeptical public.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation outlined several proposals aimed at improving the safety of oil trains. Among them: Trains carrying crude oil in older tank cars must slow to 40 mph through major cities; railroads will conduct more frequent inspections of tracks; the braking capabilities of the trains will be upgraded; and new sensors will be installed along major routes to detect train defects.
These measures are of particular interest to residents of Vancouver and communities along the Columbia River Gorge. The Port of Vancouver has proposed the construction of an oil terminal that would receive up to 380,000 barrels of crude per day by train, and the attendant safety concerns have dominated public discussion about the plan.
In that regard, the latest announcement from the Department of Transportation does little to assuage concerns. If these additional measures do, indeed, enhance the safety of oil-bearing trains, we wonder why the railroad industry did not implement them long ago. Numerous derailments across North America have been documented in the past year, including one that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. More than 30 buildings in the center of town were destroyed in that tragedy, which stands as the deadliest train accident in Canada since 1864. Months after the Lac-Megantic disaster, a derailment and explosion led to the evacuation of Casselton, N.D.Secondly, the measures outlined by the Department of Transportation are voluntary. The Federal Railroad Administration has indicated that it will conduct regular inspections and will publicly admonish railroads that are in violation of the new guidelines, but it does not have the authority to issue fines or take punitive action. That does little to reassure the public, and history has demonstrated that when a derailment does occur, local taxpayers end up paying for the cleanup.
The issues surrounding the regulation of oil trains are relatively new as the industry has grown at an exponential pace. The extraction of crude from the Bakken formation in North Dakota has resulted in a vast expansion in rail traffic that regulators are just now catching up with. In 2008, the Association of American Railroads estimates, there were 9,500 carloads of crude transported in the United States; last year, there were 400,000 carloads.
Because of that, and because Bakken oil is known to be more volatile than oil from other sources, it is crucial that regulators act to ensure the safety of the public. Federal officials indicated last week that they also are working with the oil industry to develop safeguards, but if those guidelines are as toothless as the ones for the railroad industry, they won’t provide much comfort.
BNSF Railway, which operates the tracks leading to the Port of Vancouver, last week announced that it would purchase 5,000 new, better-reinforced tanker cars for oil transportation. Considering the ample evidence that older cars are not safe for Bakken oil, this also is a step in the right direction. But it is only a step. The growth of the oil-by-train industry and the inherent danger that has been demonstrated time and time again not only calls for magnanimous action on the part of the rail and the oil industries, it calls for diligent regulation by the federal government.