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EDWARD HAMBERGER: U.S. needs stronger tank-car standards

Edward Hamberger

WASHINGTON — New energy resources in North America are helping grow our economy, revitalize our manufacturing sector, create jobs and attain U.S. energy independence. Railroads are playing a critical role in achieving these goals by safely transporting new energy supplies.

As U.S. crude oil production has increased, so has the amount of crude hauled by rail, from fewer than 10,000 carloads in 2008 to more than 400,000 carloads last year. And as crude-by-rail continues to increase, it is important to remember that railroads are one of the safest modes of transportation — and getting safer.

The safe and reliable transportation of crude oil — or any commodity, for that matter — is the freight rail industry’s top priority. Nothing supplants the industry’s efforts to render a very safe industry even safer.

But to fully understand freight rail safety, particularly when talking about transporting crude oil from North Dakota, it is important to recognize several aspects of freight rail that are not common knowledge.

  •  First, one major difference between rail and other modes of transportation such as trucks, barges and airlines is that freight railroads operate almost exclusively on infrastructure that they own, build, maintain and pay for themselves.

Freight rail companies have invested some $550 billion in the U.S. rail network since 1980, when they were partially deregulated — and they continue to invest at record levels. In short, our investment — not funds from the federal government — ensures that the 140,000 miles of rail that crisscross the country and North Dakota are safe and well maintained.

  •  A second important fact often not recognized in the discussion of the safe movement of oil by rail concerns the shared responsibility for that safety. When freight rail moves energy products such as crude from North Dakota, several entities are responsible for the safety of that shipment.

As the Wall Street Journal stated in a recent front-page story, “Although railroads have transformed themselves into an efficient part of the North American supply chain and a central element in today’s robust new North American oil production, they can’t fully control safety because they don’t own an entire train … Railroads must rely on their partners for safe loads.”

The rail companies own the equipment and tracks. Our safety practices and protocols govern the movement of the goods, and our technologies detect and warn of potential transport dangers.

But shippers and rail-car companies own, and are responsible for, the proper functioning of nearly all of the nation’s tank cars that carry the crude, and their customers own the contents of those cars.

This dynamic makes for a complicated safety situation, requiring a high degree of coordination and commitment among all parties.

Still, railroads have a tremendous safety record for moving all hazardous materials, including crude oil. In fact, 99.998 percent of all rail hazmat shipments reach their destination without a release caused by a train accident.

But safety is a never-ending pursuit. Recent derailments have highlighted the need for safer tank cars.

It’s time for a thorough review of the U.S. tank car fleet that moves flammable liquids. Shippers must step up and ensure that tank cars used to move dangerous goods are as safe as they can be.

Last November, the Association of American Railroads urged the U.S. Department of Transportation to push for improved federal tank-car safety standards. Our view is that all tank cars transporting flammable liquids — including crude — should be retrofitted or phased out, and new cars built to more stringent standards.

This important safety upgrade will substantially decrease the likelihood of a release if a tank car is involved in an accident.

The push for better tank cars comes as the rail industry is making its own significant safety changes, including lowering travel speeds for trains carrying crude, increasing inspections of rail lines, improving safety coordination with local communities and improving first responder training.

As the movement of crude-by-rail continues to increase, so will our focus on safety. Railroads will continue to work with communities and customers to find ways to make a safe rail network even safer.

Edward Hamberger is president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, the industry trade group representing the major freight railroads in North America.