NTSB: Oil train crash risks 'major loss of life'

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 23, 2014 at 7:46 pm •  Published: January 23, 2014
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"The large-scale shipments of crude oil by rail simply didn't exist 10 years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up with this new reality," NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said in a statement. "While this energy boom is good for business, the people and the environment along rail corridors must be protected from harm."

Freight rail lines across the U.S. frequently run through densely populated areas, from small towns to large cities. Many of the lines were laid out in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

At the same time the NTSB was releasing its recommendations, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called for new steps to protect communities from accidents involving oil trains and other hazardous materials, including fees on companies that ship crude oil by rail and on industries that use oil.

The money would go into a fund to rebuild rail lines, Emanuel told a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington. Chicago is a major freight rail hub. Emanuel's proposal was endorsed by the mayors of Philadelphia, Madison and Milwaukee, Wis., Kansas City, Kan., and Peoria, Ill.

Rail industry officials bristled at the notion of a tax on their customers.

"Freight railroads each year invest roughly $25 billion of their own funds into the nationwide rail network so taxpayers don't have to, and the result is rail infrastructure that is the envy of the world," Hamberger said. "As we've seen with other federal tax and fee proposals, the end result is unfortunately that consumers often end up footing the bill."

Supporters of the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline say the risk of transporting oil by rail highlights the need for the pipeline, which would carry oil derived from tar sands in western Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast. A spur off the pipeline is planned for the Bakken region. Oil started flowing Wednesday through a southern leg of the pipeline from Oklahoma to the Houston region.

Jack Koraleski, CEO of Union Pacific, the nation's largest freight railroad, told The Associated Press the railroad industry already plans to begin treating crude oil like a toxic chemical and carefully plan out the safest routes possible using existing federal rules for the most hazardous chemicals. He said the decision was made as a result of the meeting with Foxx.

"We're going to route all crude oil through that same process," he said. "By any stretch of the imagination, our performance in crude oil is incredibly safe. But there are some things we can do to make it safer."

Government regulations require more than two dozen different factors be considered to determine the best route for dangerous shipments to follow. But that doesn't always mean those shipments are routed around cities because the main route through a city might be considered the safest option since it might have better-maintained tracks and safer crossings, Koraleski said.

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Associated Press writers Matthew Daly in Washington and Josh Funk in Omaha, Neb., contributed to this report.

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Follow Joan Lowy on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AP_Joan_Lowy