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Railway dangers

A runaway train bearing crude oil derailed early Saturday morning, igniting a fireball that killed several people in a small Quebec town near the Maine border. Some people from Lac-Megantic are still missing, and much of the town — about 30 buildings — was incinerated.

The train, operated by the U.S.-owned Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway Inc., had stopped for a routine crew change and inspection by an engineer, but then it started moving on its own, traveling nearly seven miles before it careened off the tracks. The crash remains under investigation, but one truth is already clear: There are real and oft-ignored dangers involved in the transfer of crude oil by rail.

In the midst of a boom in North American oil production, the amount of crude shipped by rail has skyrocketed. In 2008 9,500 carloads were shipped by rail, The Wall Street Journal reported; by 2012, that had soared to 234,000 carloads. On balance, the exploitation of new oil fields has been a boon to the U.S. economy and foreign policy. But infrastructure has not kept pace.

Particularly as political opposition has slowed pipeline construction, oil transport has had to rely on a network of railways, some of which are outdated and in need of repair. Investigators from Greenpeace found that some oil tank cars used in Canada and the United States were unsafe even 20 years ago. In a 2009 report, the National Transportation Safety Board, investigating a derailment in Illinois, concluded that the outdated design of the cars was essentially a fuse waiting to be lit.

The tragedy in Quebec is a reminder that no transportation method is without risk. Pipelines, properly built and maintained, offer the most secure, as well as most efficient, method. The accident in Lac-Megantic should focus attention on the safety of the continent’s rails.

The Washington Post


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