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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Rail is still the safest, cleanest way to move hazardous materials

Kris Johnson

The recent train derailment in Mosier, Oregon, drives home the importance of transportation safety and emergency response preparations. It also puts a spotlight on the hazardous materials that are essential to supporting jobs and maintaining public health.

Slamming the brakes on shipments of hazardous materials by rail could have unintended consequences, such as damaging the economy, threatening public health, harming the environment, and increasing the risk of accidents.

All modes of transportation – trucks, trains, ships and aircraft – involve the risk of an accident. Rail transportation is recognized as the safest method of moving large quantities of hazardous materials over long distances. Of all deliveries of hazardous materials by rail, 99.99 percent are completed without incident.

Our daily lives rely on the transport of hazardous materials. There are the obvious examples like the fuel we put in our cars, trucks, tractors and airplanes. Almost all of the motor fuel used in Washington state comes from one of the four refineries in northwest Washington. And that means transporting crude oil by ship, pipeline and rail to the refineries and then transporting the fuel to where it is needed.

Chlorine is another hazardous materials example. Rail is responsible for hauling 22 percent, or 35,000 carloads of chlorine every year. Chlorine is essential to keeping our drinking water supply safe. Additionally, 85 percent of all pharmaceuticals contain chlorine.

Then there’s ammonia – a common ingredient in many of our household cleaners. But nearly 80 percent of ammonia is used in agriculture as fertilizer. Though considered a hazardous material, over 37,000 Washington farms need ammonia to maintain our $49 billion agriculture industry.

Are there inherent risks with transporting hazardous materials? Yes, of course, but no mode of transport is better than rail in terms of providing safety and environmental performance.

The railroad companies, which are required by federal law to transport hazardous materials, have invested billions of dollars to reduce risk and improve emergency response capabilities. For example, BNSF Railway has completely replaced hundreds of bridges, inspects its network more frequently than required by federal regulations, operates some of the most sophisticated, proprietary technology in the industry, and has trained thousands of emergency responders.

Train derailments attract a lot of attention – as they should. But, in fact, derailments are rare. Over the past 16 years, the train accident rate is down 45 percent – the lowest rate ever, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Track-caused accidents are down even more – 54 percent – reflecting maintenance and capital investment by the railroads.

In addition to being safer, rail is also a much more environment-friendly mode of transportation. Rail accounts for only 2.3 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. By comparison, emissions from passenger vehicles and trucks add up to 84.6 percent.

A single train can haul the same amount of cargo as up to 280 trucks. Rail frees up capacity on highways and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by double digit percentages.

Hazardous materials are a fact of our everyday life and are vital to maintaining jobs, the economy and public health. Rail is the safest, cleanest mode of transporting hazardous materials.

Let’s learn from the accident at Mosier and continue to make investments and enhancements to improve transportation safety. But, at the same time, avoid arbitrary actions or policies that could have unintended consequences.

Kris Johnson is the president of the Association of Washington Business.