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Catching A Runaway Train

Tue, 07/29/2014 - 4:42pm
Nikita Ernst, Associate Editor

Does it feel like we've been plagued with train accidents this year? It seems as though once a week we get news of yet another tragic train collision and subsequent fuel or chemical spill. This time it hit close to home, as a Canadian National train collided with another freight train in rural Wisconsin, injuring two people and spilling gallons upon gallons of the trains' diesel fuel. Fortunately, the engineer and conductor's injuries were not severe and the evacuated residents were allowed to return home that same day, but this incident - the latest in a long line of accidents just this year - brings into sharp focus an ongoing problem we face in continuing to use one of the oldest (large-scale) transportation technologies for moving such volatile materials. 

Today, trains are ubiquitous and have been around so long that it's easy to forget that they were our first, and for almost one hundred years, the only method for moving people and goods across the country on a larger-than-a-covered-wagon scale. Beyond railroads being the lynchpin for many small towns across America, their reputation quickly took a dark turn as their construction ushered in unwelcome immigrants on the West Coast, and became synonymous with ruthless monopolies and the destruction of the natural beauty and inhabitants of the American West. When cars came on the scene trains, largely faded from the historical spotlight. Even now we're wary of train travel, mostly in terms of what it could mean for the economy; Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker rather infamously killed a high-speed rail project begun by his predecessor, stating that the taxpayer costs would outweigh potential job growth and environmental benefits. But freight trains are still a large, if somewhat forgotten, part of modern life - especially during the current shale gas boom. And it's no longer railway bandits we have to worry about, it's the old, unorganized systems still in place.

The most well-known railway risk that has come to light this year was probably the extra danger associated with Bakken crude. We've moved so quickly in drilling and transporting our native oil that not only do we not quite understand the fuel itself, and it's unpredictable nature, but the infrastructures that surround the oil transport industry have yet to catch up. Although the accident this week in Wisconsin didn't actually involve trains carrying oil - what if it had been? Often the "what if's" of these train accidents are more frightening than even the worst of the fatal accidents. What if the Wisconsin trains had actually been hauling fuel, instead of just what was in their own tanks? What if any of this year's collisions occurred closer to, or inside a town or city? BNSF alone reported approximately 27 oil trains per week moving through the Chicago area. The chances are good - simply because of the nature of industry - that accidents will continue and have the potential to be even more horrible than we've yet seen.

We are trying - just in the past six months we've seen calls to make oil train data public and a large number of new safety regulations suggested or put in place. But it's still not enough, and more importantly, it's not happening fast enough. We need to know what is different about the crude oil obtained via fracking and we need to find safer ways to move it. We need to take better control of our rail system and put proper safety procedures in place in order to prevent the multi-train accidents. And we need to do it fast because neither the oil and gas industry, nor the economy at large, can afford to slow down and wait. 

Equally important, but perhaps more easily overlooked, we need to have structures in place to deal with these accidents when they do happen and they are going to happen because many of the new regulations (appropriately) phase out dated and dangerous technology over the course of years. Fire departments and other emergency responders - especially those that serve the smaller communities than many railways run through - are often unprepared, both in terms of knowledge and resources, for accidents on the levels we've seen. We need to be prepared to save lives and livelihoods - both in terms of protecting the people in surrounding communities and the environment that the accidents invariably contaminate. 

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