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Railroad safety demands that action be taken

Grand Forks Herald

Once might just be an accident. Twice could be a coincidence.

But now that trains carrying North Dakota crude oil have exploded in flames three times in less then six months, the catastrophes are becoming a pattern — and it’s time, probably past time, for officials and industry to act.

Any actions risk slowing down some of the economic activity that the Bakken boom has brought to North Dakota. But failing to act has risks as well — namely, the risk that the pattern of derailments and fireballs could continue.

And that’s an unacceptable outcome, given the population centers that the trains traverse.

North Dakota almost lost much of Casselton on Monday. Canada saw 47 people die in this summer’s explosive derailment in Quebec.

When the Navy or Air Force experience an unexplained rash of aviation accidents, authorities issue a “stand down,” a mandatory grounding until officials can determine whether it’s safe for operations to continue.

Does the railroad industry have a similar way of acting with urgency? If it doesn’t, it should have — and maybe that contingency should be invoked, depending on whether the accidents are as sobering in official circles as they are to the general public.

Something unusual certainly seems to be going on. And while the series of accidents is one reason behind that perception, it’s not the only one.

In the wake of the tragedy in Quebec, the Toronto Globe and Mail started looking into the the growth of oil-by-rail traffic; and in early December, the newspaper started publishing its investigative report. Here’s how the series begins:

“A shortage of oil pipelines in North America had created a new kind of railway industry traversing the continent,” the Globe and Mail reports.

“In just a few years, tankers carrying crude oil from the resource-rich West had grown from a mere 8,000 in 2009 to nearly 400,000. ... (But) despite this extraordinary boom in oil shipments, there was no change in regulatory oversight, or added safety measures, governing these veritable pipelines on wheels passing through hundreds of small towns across the country.”

As a result, according to the newspaper, “there were also no rules determining how much crude could be placed on one load, or how many tankers could be strung together without creating the risk of large explosions. There were no regulations requiring railways to place buffer cars periodically through these hazardous loads to help minimize the danger of an explosion.

“The number of inspectors designed to oversee the industry, meanwhile, had dropped from one for every 14 tanker cars on the rails to just one for every 4,000.” And so on.

Are the tanker cars that carry most of the oil up to the task, or do they need safety retrofits? Can America and Canada’s track systems handle the increased loads?

Again, if the accidents are as disturbing in industry and regulatory circles as they are to the public, then these and other key questions need immediate attention.

Pipelines remain the safest and most economical way to ship oil. But even if President Barack Obama approves the Keystone XL pipeline (as he should), millions of barrels of Bakken oil still will be transported by rail. Let’s make sure that mode of transit stays as safe as it historically has been.