A new federal proposal to improve the safe transportation of flammable liquids by rail would require oil shippers to use stronger tank cars by 2017. Cars that carry crude oil, ethanol, and other petroleum products would be retrofitted to include thicker steel shielding and better heat protection, which are designed to result in smaller releases and fires in the event of an accident.
The Transportation Department’s welcome mandate follows a year of heavy spills and catastrophic derailments. A train derailment in Pennsylvania last February poured 10,000 gallons of oil onto the tracks. The crash of a runaway train killed 47 people in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic last July.
The Railway Supply Institute, which represents tank car manufacturers in North America, has greeted the proposal with silence. Other industry officials protest that the rapid upgrade could create a temporary shortage of cars that would truncate oil production.
That is shortsighted. Curtailing train accidents would save the federal government $2.63 billion, regulators estimate. That exceeds the $2.59 billion cost that would be needed to upgrade the 98,000 oil cars now operating in North America to standards set by the Association of American Railroads.
Even a net loss in income would be negligible compared to the threat posed by derailments to the environment, private property, and security of communities. When safety is at stake, the first duty of government is to maintain not industry’s profit, but the well-being of people.