Editorial: Railroads need to get on board with oil train safety fix

  • Smoke and flames erupt from a train derailment March 5 near Galena.

    Smoke and flames erupt from a train derailment March 5 near Galena. Associated Press

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted8/26/2015 10:35 AM

If you're a cautious person and a careful reader of the news, you might not idle beneath railroad overpasses because you know a Union Pacific train derailed in 2012 in Glenview, collapsing a railroad bridge and killing Burton and Zorine Lindner in their car beneath it.

You might not pull up close at a lowered crossing gate, because you remember the 2009 derailment of a CN train carrying ethanol that exploded into flames, engulfing a car near Rockford and killing 41-year-old Zoila Tellez.


You might look at the railroad tracks bisecting countless busy suburban neighborhoods and find it hard not to think about the BNSF train hauling crude oil that derailed outside Galena in March. No one was hurt in the rural area, but the fire burned for two days and authorities asked people within a one-mile radius to evacuate.

Imagine how many people are within a one-mile radius of railroads in downtown Arlington Heights or Naperville or Des Plaines or Barrington or Libertyville or Elgin, to name a few.

It adds up to an urgent, and growing, need to improve freight train safety.

There were 69 train derailments in Illinois between Jan. 1 and May 31, up from 59 in that time in 2014, as transportation writer Marni Pyke pointed out Monday. Most were minor.

So far.

But the stakes are higher than ever. Train shipments of volatile oil have vastly increased, raising the chances that a derailment will cause a fire, explosion or hazmat leak. About 40 crude oil trains go through the Chicago area every week.

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Safety improvements aren't keeping up. Stricter tank car standards finalized this year have loopholes that leave the suburbs at risk. They allow for stronger tank cars carrying crude oil to be phased in through May 2023. And the regulations affect only trains that have 20 consecutive tankers, or 35 in the entire train, carrying highly flammable liquids.

Six cars derailed in Galena, and two exploded.

Joe Szabo, a former Federal Railroad Administration chief who now heads the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, backs another change. He says electronic brakes on trains carrying crude oil and ethanol would reduce derailments that cause most tank-car disasters, as well as help prevent more common collisions between trains and vehicles and pedestrians. The brakes stop train cars smoothly and more quickly, he said.

Railroads don't want the cost of new tank cars or safer brakes, which can run into hundreds of millions of dollars. But we're sure they also don't want accidents.

Given that, rail lines need quickly to get on board with backing a method -- or a combination of effective methods -- that will add protection. If the new brakes aren't a satisfactory safety solution, let's hear something that is better.

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