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Northwest Voices

Seattle Times letters to the editor

July 30, 2014 at 6:33 PM

Oil trains: Inaction created by dualing interests of profitability and safety

A BNSF investigator photographs the scene where a locomotive and four cars carrying crude oil went off the track beneath the Magnolia Bridge in Seattleā€™s Interbay neighborhood early this morning. (Photo by Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

Oil shipments by rail through any community are dogged by what seems like irreconcilable conflicts of interest [“Oil train derails in Interbay in Seattle, no spills,” The Today File, July 24]. First there is the need for profitability by the railroad. Second there is the need for a safe and reasonable impact on the community.

The profit motive has resulted in allowing railroads in the U.S. to operate with the highest axle loads used almost anywhere in the world. Heavy cars mean high productivity, and that is good. However, heavy loads require tracks that can take the immense forces. The challenge for the railroad is the demand for uniformly high-quality materials, good construction, impeccable maintenance and operational procedures that recognize the limitations of the track. This last point is exactly why the heavy trains in the U.S. move ever so slowly, far more slowly than what is possible with modern rail technology. With a go-slow approach, the railroads have painted themselves into an economic corner where most of the goods they transport can always be a day or two late. Slow speeds also spell long delays in communities where road traffic is waiting to cross tracks.

The government can and will insist on safer tank cars. That will not, however, guarantee that a serious conflagration can be avoided altogether. With regulatory agencies unlikely able to slow or reverse the trend toward ever heavier trains, we are likely to continue witnessing confrontations between communities who want no oil trains and the railroads unable to accommodate community needs or demands. This standoff will be terminated by the accident we hope will never happen, here anyway.

Reiner Decher, Seattle

Comments | More in Oil train | Topics: oil, oil trains, railroads

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