Railroads share the public’s deep concern for the safe movement of crude oil by rail and, as recent incidents have shown us, freight railroads and others who share responsibility for the shipment of oil must continue to make improvements to ensure public confidence.
No accident big or small is acceptable, and every day the freight rail industry looks to improve the safety of its operations. Safety is not a static endeavor. It is embedded in every aspect of train operations and it is the foundation on which the thousands of men and women in the freight rail industry across the United States work every day.
The federal government is weighing new safety standards for tank cars that carry flammable materials such as crude oil. These design and construction standards are crucial fixes railroads have been advocating for years. Every tank car carrying crude oil today needs to be upgraded and made safer.
Because safety is such an integral part of train operations, the nation’s freight rail companies aren’t waiting for new measures to enhance their safety practices. Not only are railroads continuing their record investments in new equipment, track and safety technologies, but they have stepped up their operations protocols for handling and moving crude oil.
Some of the new measures that have been implemented include:
Improved track inspections: Railroads are performing more track inspections than required by the federal government on lines trains travel with at least 20 carloads of crude oil. As well, comprehensive track geometry vehicles, which measure track alignment and assess track conditions, and are not mandated by the government, are conducted on crude oil routes.
Defect detectors: Specialized track-side “hot box” detectors alongside crude oil routes measure the condition of tank car wheel bearings and identify potential problems before an incident occurs.
Secure routing: Railroads and federal agencies jointly developed the Rail Corridor Risk Management System, a sophisticated statistical routing tool designed to help railroads identify safe and secure routes for transporting highly hazardous materials. Major U.S. railroads use this routing tool today for trains carrying crude oil.
Speed restrictions and enhanced braking: Railroads adhere to a self-imposed 50-mph speed limit for trains carrying 20 or more carloads of crude oil. Speeds are reduced to 40 mph through federally designated high-threat urban areas. Trains operating on main line tracks carrying at least 20 carloads of crude oil are equipped with enhanced braking systems
Continued reinvestment is another important safety-enhancement asset: One of the most important ways railroads have reduced accidents is through the continuous upgrading, maintenance and modernization of their 140,000-mile rail network. Since 1980, the industry has spent $575 billion on the nation’s rail system. In 2015, that number is projected to be $29 billion, or approximately $80 million a day.
That continual investment and spending is paying off. Not only have accident rates decreased by more than 40 percent since 2000, but all data indicate that 2014 had the lowest rail accident rate in history. From 2000 to 2014, 99.9 percent of carloads carrying crude oil arrived safely at their destination.
Railroads have played a pivotal role in America’s energy renaissance by delivering clear benefits such as reduced oil imports, increased economic development and, in recent months, a sharp decline in gasoline and heating oil prices. They offer transportation capacity where there was none, along with the flexibility to transport crude — or any product, for that matter — quickly to different places in response to market needs.
Every day, thousands of freight trains move America’s economy with little fanfare. They transport grain from the Great Plains, lumber from the Northwest, oil from North Dakota, automobiles from the Midwest, consumer packages to and from many points on the map, containers to and from myriad U.S. ports. Businesses and consumers expect that level of consistency and reliability from freight rail. They will continue to receive it because of this industry’s commitment to operate on a foundation of safety.
• Edward R. Hamberger is president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads.