On May 1, the Department of Transportation (DOT) released their proposed rule to improve safety for high hazard flammable trains carrying crude oil. The proposal falls far short of what we hoped. Just last week, another train exploded in North Dakota signaling how urgently communities need protections to keep them safe. Instead, what we see from the DOT is a long-term plan that gradually phases in a series of simple changes designed to accommodate sending more rolling dangers through our towns.
In response, momentum is building for a moratorium on oil trains. We should not use these types of trains at all. If the price of oil means subjecting every railroad town and city in America to flying Pepsi cans full of explosive cancer-causing chemicals, then maybe we can't afford the price of oil and its time to start doing with less.
Unsafe at Any Speed
We’ve known for decades that the legacy DOT 111 model train cars carrying crude oil have a tendency to puncture and explode during a derailment. So, what is DOT’s plan? Slow the trains down to 40mph while traveling through designated High Threat Urban Areas (HTUAs). Not towns or the countryside where most of the miles of track cross our country. Those trains can go 50mph.
Retrofitting a Bad Idea
The magnitude and frequency of these tragic derailments demands bold action that ends business as usual. Not a retread of the same old trains wearing extra cosmetics. Over the course of a multiple year phase-in period, existing train cars will have to add an extra 1/16 of an inch to their hulls. Some will eventually have to improve their braking systems. Each of these are underwhelming design and system changes.
And What’s in These Trains Anyway?
Even on transparency, the Department retreated from offering the public genuine access to unsanitized information describing the number of cars, routes, and contents of the exploding trains. Instead, the railroad just provides local governments a point of contact- a number to call in case something bad happens. Real disclosure means providing, in a searchable and accessible format, the routes and contents of these hazard trains directly to the public.
Where We Go Next
Overall, this rule provides a window in to how much value DOT affords the public concern raised against flammable trains travelling through our neighborhoods. By more than ten to one, comments supported much stronger safety provisions. But on issue after issue: breaking, speeds, disclosure, testing, and design, the railroad industry with their oil and gas friends won out through insisting on self-reporting and slowly phasing in only the most modest changes.
Senator Cantwell has an important bill that will direct DOT to make the necessary improvements. Some of her colleagues who represent states with high-hazard flammable trains have expressed criticisms mirroring the Senator’s sentiments. Right now, it’s not clear how many more explosions we need before we create real reform.