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Stamp ‘denied’ on oil trains’ secrecy requests

Fewer people would die on American highways if the U.S. government reimposed its nationwide 55 mph speed limit. But there’s no move in Congress to do so; and if anything, the trend among states is in the other direction. (On July 1, the speed limits on rural interstates in both Idaho and Wyoming will be raised to 80 mph.) Why?

Why hasn’t the federal government responded to the clear safety benefits of slower speeds?

Because the safety gains would be comparatively small, compared with the nationwide benefits of faster transportation, which are huge. In other words, while making everyone in America drive more slowly would save some lives, that gain’s not enough to offset the “pain” — the widely shared frustration and delays of such a slowdown.

And that’s the lens through which society also should look at calls for keeping oil-train data secret.

Last month, the U.S. government ordered railroads to give states more information on how much crude oil is being shipped and by what routes.

But “BNSF Railway, the nation’s main mover of crude oil by rail, has pressured North Dakota and other states to sign confidentiality agreements barring public release of estimates of how much Bakken crude they move and where,” partly for security reasons, Forum News Service reported.

So far, North Dakota and some other states have refused to sign, saying that such agreements would be illegal under the states’ open-records laws. Those states are right to refuse, and because of the agreements’ questionable value as well as their dubious legality.

It’s probably true that letting railroads hold shipment data “close to the vest” lowers the risk of terrorist attack. But by how much? Conversely, how much would be gained by the routine dissemination of the data, especially in helping communities anticipate and get ready for the trains that’ll come rumbling through?

The trouble with the “secrecy is essential” argument is the fact that the oil trains roll in plain view. In the first three months of this year alone, some 110,000 railcars carried 3.2 billion gallons of crude, every pint of it moving above ground on generally open tracks.

Basically, in North Dakota and neighboring states, trains brimming with Bakken crude have become a common sight. Given that fact, how much real-world safety is gained by withholding info about the trains’ cargo and schedules?

And how does Amtrak manage to run its passenger trains, if publishing schedules supposedly leads to intolerable security risks?

There are plenty of places where Americans have balked at tightening security, even though the stepped-up efforts could somewhat lower risks.

The security gain of having oil trains travel at unannounced intervals seems marginal, compared with the usefulness of telling Americans about the trains passing through their cities and towns. North Dakota should keep refusing to sign confidentiality agreements and preparing for the day when the trains’ schedules become common knowledge to all.