August 6, 2013

Our View: Though on the right track, rail rules still need work

In the wake of the Quebec accident, officials can do a lot more to prevent similar tragedies.

It's been exactly a month since a runaway Maine oil tanker train en route to New Brunswick derailed and exploded in a small Quebec town, costing nearly 50 people their lives.

click image to enlarge

Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after they derailed in downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec, on July 6. Forty-seven people were killed.

2013 File Photo/The Canadian Press

As an inquiry continues into the train accident in Lac-Megantic, about 20 miles from the Maine border, regulators are beginning to take action to avert a similar tragedy in the future.

The Federal Railroad Administration last week imposed emergency rules to keep parked trains from breaking loose like the one in Lac-Megantic. The agency's Railroad Safety Advisory Committee also plans a meeting to explore whether further changes are warranted.

We hope the railroad agency and its safety panel are prepared for hard work. There's a lot of room for improvement in freight safety regulations. Whether pipelines or railroads are safer for oil transportation is a matter of contention, but we do know that rail shipments of crude oil soared 443 percent between 2005 and 2012, making it more important than ever that safety laws are as tough as they can be.

Under the mandatory directive, railroads can't leave trains carrying hazardous materials unattended unless federal regulators sign off on required safety improvements.

The order is a start, but it doesn't do enough. Since the July 6 accident -- which involved a 72-car train operated by one man -- Canadian authorities have banned one-person crews for trains with dangerous cargo. The U.S., on the other hand, merely urges all railroads to review their freight staffing; it imposes no mandates.

Granted, last month's accident hasn't been blamed on Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway's use of a one-person crew. But it makes sense that a second person would ease the workload and allow each person on board to catch the other's errors.

The railroad industry likely will resist any staffing mandate, the same way it is balking at an effort to boost safety standards for the type of rail car involved in the Lac-Megantic tragedy. The DOT-111, commonly used to haul hazardous materials, is known for its tendency to split open during major accidents.

The industry has implemented voluntary standards ensuring that newer cars meet standards recommended after a deadly 2009 derailment and explosion in Illinois involving ethanol-laden train cars. Retrofitting the 40,000 older DOT-111s that carry dangerous cargo, however, is too expensive, the Association of American Railroads has said: more than $1 billion.

The industry group's argument is a weak one, given that the industry's 2012 revenues are estimated at $70 billion. Not that the Obama administration has given the industry much incentive to change its ways:The National Transportation Safety Board last year urged tougher safety requirements for both existing and newly built DOT-111s, but federal officials have lagged at adopting them.

We've seen that when a train with dozens of oil-filled tanker cars derails in the middle of a community, the consequences are enormous. So if a measure can be taken to limit the chances of a freight accident, it should be.

Railroad regulators and the railroad industry have a big job on their hands, and the best time to tackle it is now -- before another Lac-Megantic.


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