With the recent rail tragedy in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, the public has turned a critical eye toward the state’s rail system. Many questions have been raised regarding the incident as well as about how materials are transported by rail.
But as we cast a critical eye on rail transport, we can’t overlook the fact that railroads move a great deal of hazardous material each day, and they do it well. They do it so well that, for the most part, the public doesn’t even realize these materials are passing us by. My goal is not to defend railroads against their faults. But when things work properly, no one notices.
Historically, railroads played a large role in the growth of several American cities. Railroad junctions became population hubs as cities sprang up around them. Because of this, most rail lines run through the most populated areas of the country. In recent years, railroads have begun to build bypasses around major population areas, but this is costly and may become complicated in congested areas.
Further, with renewed interest in passenger rail, rail systems are being updated to modern standards, even here in Maine. The expansion of Amtrak’s Downeaster has opened up passenger opportunities, and upgrades to Downeaster track make it even more difficult to relocate rail lines, as they must stay close to population centers in order for passenger service to be viable.
Whether we agree with the production of certain materials and chemicals, the reality is that our society uses, transports and houses millions of tons of deadly chemicals each day. This is a necessary evil for our civilization to enjoy our unique way of life. And, of course, crude oil is a necessity to sustain our lifestyle (for now).
Crude oil and similar energy commodities can easily be switched to pipelines, as has been suggested following the Lac-Megantic accident, but many other materials cannot. That means, for now, rail is the best option for transporting acids, toxic chemicals, radiated materials and much more. By no means are railroads a stranger to moving materials that could easily create a disaster. And further, they do it every single day all over the country.
That isn’t to say accidents don’t happen. Given the diversity and array of railroad companies, accidents are bound to happen. But a number of important precautions are in place to ensure safety of these normally transported hazardous materials.
For one, daily inspections of equipment by railroad officials play an important role in preventing accidents. Organizations such as the Federal Railroad Administration and the Association of American Railroads add an extra system of checks and balances to ensure equipment is maintained properly. These organizations have the ability to sanction or even shut down a railroad if they deem the service unsafe. But once again, given the large number of operating railroads and equipment, the task of monitoring each facet is difficult.
It seems to me there is a general belief that railroads as private enterprises are not scrutinized by other entities. That is simply not true. There are rules and regulations established by which railroads must operate.
When accidents do happen, hazardous materials are actually labeled with a placard or other form of identification so emergency responder can respond appropriately. In the example of crude oil, a red placard with the number 1267 is put on visible display on the tank car. Tank cars carrying liquefied petroleum gas carry the number 1075, and gasoline placards are labeled 1203.
For years these types of materials have moved by rail without issue. Simply put, there is no other way of transporting all these different materials that is viable.
The only way to avoid it would be to return to the Stone Age, and I don’t think that will happen anytime soon.
Charles Hastings of Portland has an MBA from the University of Maine in Orono.