Over two years after a runaway freight train derailed, exploded and destroyed much of the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47, the Obama administration has issued new rules governing breaking procedures for tanker cars carrying volatile cargo.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) said Wednesday that two qualified railroad workers must set the handbrakes and check other safety equipment on cars carrying dangerous liquids, like crude oil or ethanol, when trains over 20-cars long are left unattended.
But for environmentalists and train safety advocates, the government moves seemed almost absurdly little and inexplicably late.
“If you leave a train unattended, yeah, you should put the brakes on,” said Eddie Scher, communications director for environmental watchdog ForestEthics. But Scher believes the rule sort of misses the point.
“The thing to do is not leave [oil trains] unattended.”
“The idea of setting a rule to leave a 3-million-gallon fuel tanker unattended is ridiculous,” he continued.
Trains can be stopped and left unattended — meaning no engineer or other crew is onboard — on main tracks, side tracks or in yards for a variety of reasons, including congestion and scheduled breaks for rail workers.
Scher told Al Jazeera that the new rule and the types of accidents it is meant to prevent stem from a larger, systemic problem: Freight rail companies cutting corners. “If you can’t afford a 24 hour crew, it makes you ask a larger question—why are we running these trains in the first place?”
In Canada, where a similar — though less stringent — brake rule was also released Wednesday, railway experts saw the same problems.
“The problem is more fundamental than the rules around parking trains,” said York University professor Mark Winfield in the Toronto Star. Winfield questioned why it took two years after the Lac-Megantic disaster to draft a break requirement, warning that the rail industry had too much sway with Canadian regulators.
On July 6, 2013, a 74-car freight train carrying volatile Bakken crude from North Dakota was left unattended by its crew on a downhill slope, eventually rolling over 10 miles before derailing in downtown Lac-Megantic. In the weeks following the accident, the Canadian Transport Minister issued an emergency directive that required trains hauling hazardous cargo to be attended by at least two railroad employees at all times.
But last December, The Canadian Press reported that CN Rail (also known as the Canadian National Railway Company, which was privatized in 1995) had lobbied hard to have that requirement lifted.
This was not a surprise to Keith Stewart of Greenpeace Canada, who told the Star that hiring crew to meet the guidelines could have cost CN millions of dollars.
Stewart’s reaction to the situation mirrored Scher’s. “If they want to carry oil through Toronto, then they shouldn’t be cutting corners on safety,” Stewart said.
But setting the brakes on all unattended tanker cars, as Scher says the U.S. rule requires, takes time. Some locomotives haul upwards of 100 cars, and physically setting all the brakes — and then unsetting them before the train resumes its journey — can take hours.
Still, while Canadian and U.S. rail watchers say any additional safety rule is at least a small plus, all the time and money the brake rule could require will not prevent the bulk of train crashes.
There have already been five major oil train accidents in North America this year — “major” being ones where the trains derailed and exploded, requiring emergency teams to respond to fires and oil spills — and not one was a runaway train.
“You can’t load 3 million gallons of crude oil and roll it down a track safely,” said Scher, noting that the mile-long tankers “are the heaviest trains on the tracks.”
And all of this cost and danger is for a fraction of the U.S. oil portfolio.
The only crude moving by rail right now, according to Scher, is from either the Bakken reserve or the Alberta tar sands — some of the continent’s most volatile, toxic and carbon-rich oil — which makes up less than five percent of the petroleum used in the U.S.
But with the marked uptick in production in those areas, it still means tens of thousands of barrels of crude traveling the country’s rails every day. And trains, like those involved in explosive accidents in Illinois, North Dakota and West Virginia earlier this year, regularly run through some of North America’s largest cities.
“That’s a lot of risk for little reward,” observed Scher, who wants to see an end to the massive oil trains on U.S. rails.
“Anything short of that is a half measure,” Scher said, “and we will still end up with the same result — another fatal accident.”