Editorial: Rail transport of liquefied natural gas needs another look

Without consensus on safety, liquefied natural gas needs another look

  • Tank cars pass through a railroad crossing at Main and Lageschulte streets in Barrington.

    Tank cars pass through a railroad crossing at Main and Lageschulte streets in Barrington. Daily Herald File photo

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 10/8/2020 8:59 AM

The Daily Herald and leaders of several of our suburbs were among those arguing years ago that crude oil shipments by train should be restricted to newer, stronger tank cars that are more likely to withstand a derailment or crash without rupturing, exploding and burning.

That viewpoint largely prevailed, with new requirements unveiled in 2015 that mitigate the risk.


But now the federal government is upping the ante, exposing towns along freight rail lines to potential new danger with the judgment that now that tank cars are safer, they can be used to move material that is more volatile.

The U.S. Department of Transportation over the summer authorized railroads to haul liquefied natural gas around the country, even in the face of the National Transportation Safety Board questioning whether doing so would be safe.

Natural gas is a chameleon, turning liquid at -260 degrees and taking up 1/600th of the space it requires as a gas, making it cheaper to transport. If the gas gets overheated and the tank ruptures, such as following a derailment or crash, it can explode violently into a fireball that will keep burning until the fuel is gone.

The chance of such an event is why the gas was, until recently, considered too risky to routinely move by rail. Barrington officials warn the potential for a catastrophe "is quite acute," the Daily Herald's Marni Pyke reported.

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Barrington, like many towns, grew up around the railroad depots that gave early settlers quick access to goods. Now, rail cars hauling all sorts of commodities pass within yards of countless homes, businesses and schools.

There's certainly an argument for having more than one mode to transport natural gas. But it's one thing to be a backup, for creating a reliable energy distribution network, and another to be a main hauling mode.

Rail lines that run through downtowns across America were not designed for this.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and 14 others are asking a federal appeals court to declare the regulation illegal, Pyke reported.

It's certainly worth another look -- at the suitability of the tank cars being adapted for this use and at whether enough funding is committed to safety, to local hazmat response training and to evacuation planning and procedures.

The new rules allow up to 100 cars per train, each holding up to 30,000 gallons of liquefied natural gas. Setting a much smaller limit on the number of cars would go a long way toward protecting people who live or work near the rails.

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