Federal Regulator, Industry Chief Defend Rail Safety

WADDY, KY - JANUARY 5: A westbound Norfolk Southern Corp. freight train passes along tracks January 6, 2014 in Waddy, Kentucky. Intermodal rail traffic in the United States increased 10.6% in the last week of 2013 compared to the same week in 2012 according to a report from the Association of American Railroads. Volumes rose due in part to demand from retailers restocking store shelves and distribution centers following the holiday retail crush. 
National Journal
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
March 6, 2014, 8:25 a.m.

A top Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment of­fi­cial and an in­dustry ex­ec­ut­ive de­fen­ded rail safety on Thursday in the wake of a string of crude-by-rail ac­ci­dents.

“New re­cords in rail safety have been achieved four out of the past five years, and pre­lim­in­ary data in­dic­ates a new all-time best for 2013,” Fed­er­al Rail­road Ad­min­is­trat­or Joseph Sz­abo said dur­ing a Sen­ate sub­com­mit­tee hear­ing con­vened to ex­am­ine pas­sen­ger and freight rail safety.

Rail ship­ments of crude oil have soared due to a surge in pro­duc­tion brought about by the one-two punch of hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing and ho­ri­zont­al drilling. Re­cent ac­ci­dents, however, have led pub­lic-safety ad­voc­ates and law­makers to ques­tion rail safety. 

Last sum­mer, a train car­ry­ing crude oil sourced from North Dakota’s Bakken form­a­tion ran off the tracks in Canada, res­ult­ing in dozens of fatal­it­ies. A sim­il­ar de­rail­ment sparked a massive ex­plo­sion in Cas­selton, N.D., at the end of Decem­ber.

The crude-by-rail safety de­bate has taken on great­er ur­gency amid spec­u­la­tion that Bakken crude is more volat­ile than oil sourced from oth­er re­gions of the coun­try.

All this bad press is prompt­ing reg­u­lat­ors and the in­dustry to rush to rail’s de­fense.

“If the ques­tion is, can we move crude by rail safely, the an­swer is yes,” Ed Ham­ber­ger, pres­id­ent and CEO of the Amer­ic­an As­so­ci­ation of Rail­roads, said dur­ing the hear­ing. “99.997 per­cent of the time the product is moved from ori­gin to des­tin­a­tion without ac­ci­dent­al re­lease.”

Both Sz­abo and Ham­ber­ger agreed, however, that more could be done to shore up safety.

“We owe it to the pub­lic to al­ways do bet­ter,” Sz­abo said. “That’s what we ex­pect out of ourselves at FRA, and its what we ex­pect out of the in­dustry that we reg­u­late.”

Last month, DOT and AAR re­leased a series of vol­un­tary safety re­com­mend­a­tions that will soon be im­ple­men­ted in an ef­fort to make crude trans­port via rail safer. The re­com­mend­a­tions in­clude slow­ing train speeds to 40 miles per hour in urb­an areas des­ig­nated as “high risk,” as well as in­creased track in­spec­tions.

DOT is also work­ing to fi­nal­ize a rule­mak­ing that would up­grade safety stand­ards for rail cars most com­monly used to haul crude.

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