The expression Americans routinely use to describe something in their lives that has gone horribly wrong is “train wreck.” It’s only necessary to follow the news to understand why: There has been no shortage lately of trains loaded with crude oil wrecking, with bad results for people and the environment.
Last week, seven cars in a 101-car freight train derailed in Philadelphia. Six of the derailed cars carried crude oil. One of them, and a boxcar, were left leaning over a bridge.
That was a close call, but other communities have not avoided disaster. Forty-seven people died in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, last July when a runaway oil train exploded and devastated the town.
Last month, an oil train collided with a derailed car from another train in North Dakota, igniting a fireball and spilling 400,000 gallons of crude oil. Such accidents cannot be ignored.
Last week, working with Canadian authorities, the National Transportation Safety Board took proper note by issuing recommendations for tougher standards for trains that carry crude oil. They include expanded route planning to avoid transporting hazardous materials through populated or sensitive areas, and an audit program to ensure that rail companies that carry petroleum are prepared to handle worst-case discharges. The NTSB has previously recommended strengthening tank cars.
As an independent agency, the NTSB needs agencies within the U.S. Department of Transportation to turn these recommendations into rules. Prompt action is needed, and pressure from Congress would help.
Large shipments of crude oil by rail have increased 400 percent, by one estimate, since 2005. The next disaster could be just around the bend.