Disaster by rail: The U.S. needs better rules for trains hauling oil

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The expression Americans naturally use when describing something in their lives that’s gone horribly wrong is “train wreck.” It’s only necessary to follow the news to understand why — there’s been no shortage lately of trains loaded with crude oil wrecking with bad results for people and the environment.

On Monday, seven cars in a 101-car freight train derailed in Philadelphia on a bridge over the Schuylkill River and Schuylkill Expressway. Six of the derailed cars carried crude and one of them plus a boxcar were left leaning over the bridge.

That was a close call, but other communities have not avoided disaster. Forty-seven people died in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July when a runaway oil train exploded and devastated the town. On Dec. 30, an oil train collided with a derailed car from another train outside Casselton, N.D., igniting a fireball and spilling 400,000 gallons of crude.

These accidents cannot be ignored and last week, in unison with Canadian authorities, the National Transportation Safety Board took proper note by issuing recommendations for tougher standards on trains carrying crude oil. They include expanded route planning to avoid hazardous materials being transported through populated or sensitive areas and an audit program to ensure that rail companies carrying petroleum are prepared to handle worst-case discharges. It has previously recommended strengthening tank cars.

As an independent agency, the NTSB needs agencies within the U.S. Department of Transportation to turn these recommendations into rules. Prompt action is needed, and some pressure from Congress would help.

Large shipments of crude oil by rail have increased 400 percent by one estimate since 2005, all of which means the next disaster could be just around the bend. The city of Pittsburgh has its own special stake in this: Freight trains run through Downtown.

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