Saturday, December 7, 2013
By Charles Hastings
PORTLAND - With the recent rail tragedy in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, the public has turned a critical eye toward Maine's rail system. A lot of questions have been raised in regard to the incident as well as to how materials are transported by rail. My goal is not to discuss the disaster at Lac-Megantic but rather to bring up some points about rail transportation that may be unknown to the public.
Railroads played a large role in the growth of several American cities. Junctions where railroads met became entire hubs with cities springing up around them. Because of this, most rail lines run through the most populated areas of the country. In recent years, railroads have begun to build bypasses around major population areas, but this is costly and may become complicated in congested areas.
Further, with renewed interest in passenger rail, a lot of systems are being updated to modern specifications, even here in Maine.
The Downeaster has allowed safer passage of freight trains as well as opening up passenger opportunities. These upgrades make it even more difficult to relocate rail lines, because they must stay close to populations for passenger service to be viable.
Whether we agree with the production of certain materials and chemicals, the reality is that our society uses, transports and houses millions of tons of deadly chemicals each day. This is a necessary evil for our civilization to enjoy our unique way of life. And of course, crude oil is a necessity to sustain our lifestyle (for now).
Crude oil and similar energy commodities can easily be switched to pipelines, but many other materials cannot. This is for a variety of reasons, but for now, rail transportation is the best option.
Acids, toxic chemicals, radiated materials and much more are moved on rails. By no means are railroads a stranger to moving materials that could easily create a disaster. And furthermore, they do it every single day all over the country.
That isn't to say that accidents don't happen for a variety of different reasons. Given the diversity and array of railroad companies, accidents are bound to happen. But what precautions are in place that ensures safety of these normally transported hazardous materials?
For one, most materials are actually labeled with a placard or other form of identification. In the example of crude oil, a red placard with the number 1267 is put on visible display on the tank car. Several other placards can be seen, with other common ones being 1075 (liquefied petroleum gas) and 1203 (gasoline).
Daily inspections of equipment by railroad officials also prevent accidents. Government agencies such as the Federal Railroad Administration and freight rail industry organizations such as the Association of American Railroads add an extra system of checks and balances to ensure equipment is maintained properly.
The trade group tracks rail traffic, while the federal agency has the ability to sanction or even shut down a railroad if it deems the service unsafe. But once again, given the large number of operating railroads and equipment, the task of monitoring each facet is a difficult one.
My goal with this piece is to provide general knowledge to the public about rail transportation. It seems to me there is a general belief that railroads as private enterprises are not scrutinized by other entities. That is simply not true. There are rules and regulations established by which railroads must operate.
Railroads move a great deal hazardous material each day, and they do it well. They do it so well that for the most part, the public doesn't even know even with train cars clearly marked, as mentioned previously. Sadly, it is only until a tragedy occurs that these practices are brought into question.
Once again, my goal is not to defend railroads against their faults (as we have seen, certainly they have them) but to note that when things work properly, no one notices. For years, these kinds of materials have moved by rail without issue.
Simply put, there is no other way of transporting all these different materials that is viable. The only way to avoid it would be to return to the Stone Age, and I don't think that will happen anytime soon.
Charles Hastings of Portland has a master's degree in business administration from the University of Maine.