The latest federal proposal to improve the safe transportation of flammable liquids by rail would require oil shippers to use stronger tank cars by October 2017. Cars carrying crude oil, ethanol and other petroleum products would be retrofitted to include thicker steel shielding and better thermal protection, which are designed to result in less product release and smaller fires in the event of an accident.
The U.S. Transportation Department’s welcome mandate comes in the wake of a year of heavy spills and catastrophic derailments. Notable instances condemned by federal regulators include the derailment of a train in Vandergrift in February that poured 10,000 gallons of oil onto the tracks, and a runaway train crash that killed 47 people in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic last July.
The Railway Supply Institute — charged with the representation of tank car manufacturers in North America — has greeted the proposal with silence.
In turn, industry officials have protested that the rapid upgrade could create a temporary shortage of cars that would truncate the production of oil.
That is short-sighted. From a cost-efficiency standpoint, the curtailment of future train accidents would save the federal government an estimated $2.63 billion — slightly exceeding the cost of $2.59 billion that would be needed to upgrade the 98,000 oil cars now operating in North America to standards set by the Association of American Railroads.
Even a net loss in income would be negligible in comparison to the threat posed by these derailments to the environment, private property and security of communities. When safety is at stake, the first duty of government is not to maintain industry’s profit, but the well-being of people.