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

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Michael J. Rush: Local laws would impede railroad operations

By Michael J. Rush Special to The Spokesman-Review

There is a great deal of public interest in the safety of railroad operations in Spokane and Washington state, specifically with respect to the transportation of fossil fuels – coal and crude oil. Often overlooked in the discussion is the railroads’ excellent safety record, made possible by a private industry that has invested $26 billion annually in recent years on its network. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, train accident rates have declined by 44 percent since 2000.

Nevertheless, some have proposed a measure that would ban railroads from transporting fossil fuels. States and localities do not have the authority to restrict rail transportation. Enactment of a ban would accomplish nothing more than wasting public (and railroad) resources on litigation with a foregone conclusion. Residents should tell their leaders to abandon this proposal.

The federal government has exclusive authority to decide what can and cannot be transported by rail. (In fact, not only do states and localities lack the authority to ban coal and crude oil shipments, but under their “common carrier” obligation railroads also do not have the authority to refuse such shipments.) This federal framework ensures the regulatory uniformity necessary for the interstate railroad transportation network. The national economy depends on a rail network able to transport goods across the country without interference. On a ton-mile basis, more goods are transported by rail than by any other transportation mode.

Fortunately, railroads move coal and crude oil safely. One wouldn’t have guessed from some of the publicity surrounding crude oil shipments, but more than 99.99 percent of all railroad shipments involving crude oil reach their destination without an accident-caused release. While movement of crude oil is a constant point of discussion, less than 1 percent of all train derailments nationally involve crude oil.

And the railroad industry strives to make its safety record even better. “Railroads have said repeatedly their goal is zero accidents, and they are working every day to achieve that goal,” former National Transportation Safety Board managing director Peter Goelz recently wrote. “The record reflects the positive progress made.”

This is a major reason railroads are spending $60 million a day this year to modernize the 140,000-mile, nationwide network and investing in safety-enhancing technologies. It is also a major reason why railroads are committing themselves to the communities they serve, going to great lengths to operate and promote safety initiatives. This includes an extensive emergency response training program. The Security and Emergency Response Training Center and the Transportation Technology Center in Colorado have trained more than 55,000 first responders to safely handle accidents involving tank cars carrying hazardous materials.

Railroads understand they are not perfect. But they are committed to constantly improving safety. Measures such as the current proposal in Spokane would only hinder the industry’s ability to serve the economy and improve operations.

We should all hope it is scrapped soon.

Michael J. Rush is senior vice president of safety and operations for the Association of American Railroads.