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Other Views: Job No. 1: Train safety in cities, towns

Here’s the problem: While the volume of oil being shipped by rail has skyrocketed, America’s fleet of tank cars date from an earlier era, and many don’t meet the newest safety standards.

Stronger and safer cars are being brought on line. But that takes time — and so far, only about 15 percent of the nation’s tank cars have been replaced, Herald staff writer John Hageman reported.

Meanwhile, of course, oil trains rumble through populated areas including Bismarck, Fargo, Grand Forks and the Twin Cities. And the explosion and fireball that a derailment near Casselton, N.D., touched off show what’s at stake.

So, let’s run through the options:

The oil industry could cut back on rail transit; but given the limits on pipeline and truck capacities, such a cutback would involve throttling production. And the risks at this point don’t justify such a drastic move.

The industries could beef up existing tank cars and/or bring the new cars into service as quickly as possible. That probably will happen, especially now that the federal and state governments know the urgency of the situation and are bringing regulations up to speed.

No matter what, though, that solution will take time — meaning years.

The real challenge is to lower the risks between now and then — in other words, to bridge the gap.

And the best way of doing that might be to focus on improving safety in populated areas. After all, the worst-case scenario is not just an accident like the one near Casselton. It would be such an accident in Casselton — or in Fargo, St. Paul or any other community where homes and businesses line the tracks.

That’s the real fear driving the new concern about rail safety. And by addressing it squarely — probably through a number of smaller risk-reduction measures, not just one big one — authorities can narrow the task into something like an achievable goal.

The National Transportation Safety Board already suggested one approach, which is to reroute oil-trains around populated areas. “The NTSB said crude oil should get the same regulatory treatment as other hazardous substances like chlorine,” the Star Tribune reported. “Railroads are required to reroute those trains, if feasible, to less-populated areas.”

That’s easier said than done, because heavy-duty rail lines were built to link cities, not skirt them.

But remember, the key is a series of small but workable risk reductions, of which rerouting — where feasible — can be one.

Lower speed limits through populated areas could be another. Keeping communities well informed of the trains’ passage also would help, as would making sure response teams are available in case of an accident.

Technologies under development such as SafeRail, which inspects the wheels and axles of moving trains and can stop the train in emergencies, may also play a role.

Oil trains now are a common feature of American life. That means many Americans along the tracks have a new risk to worry about.

But the risk remains small, given railroading’s long safety record and authorities’ now-focused concern. And smart policies meant to improve safety in populated areas can make it smaller still.