Outgoing NTSB chief leery of oil train safety

The chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) warned in one of her final public appearances that the safety of freight rail trains carrying crude oil has been compromised “far too often" recently.  

The comments from Deborah Hersman came during a public forum the NTSB was holding Tuesday on the transportation of crude oil and ethanol by freight rail. 

Hersman said in her remarks that recent accidents in the United States and Canada, including a December train derailment in North Dakota that spilled 400,000 gallons of crude oil, demonstrate that "far too often, safety has been compromised” in oil train shipments. 

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“The Association of American Railroads (AAR) stated in a 2012 report that crude oil traffic has grown by 443 percent since 2005,” Hersman said. “With so much flammable liquid carried by rail, it is incumbent upon the rail industry, shippers, and regulators to ensure that these hazardous materials are being moved safely.” 

Hersman is resigning from the NTSB next month to assume the helm of the Itasca, Ill.-based National Safety Council. 

She said this week that the demand for freight rail oil shipments will likely continue to grow, necessitating even more attention to safety regulations. 

“Quietly, in 2011, the U.S. became a net exporter of petroleum products for the first time since 1949,” she said. “This is a good thing for our nation. But at the end of the day, millions of dollars are invested to seek out new oil reserves. A commensurate investment must be made to ensure safe transportation of these goods.” 

The debate over the safety of oil shipments by freight trains has been used by supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline to argue in favor of building the controversial project. They argue that the amount of oil that is being shipped on trains would be reduced if companies had the option of using the pipeline.

The Obama administration has not yet issued a final ruling on the Keystone pipeline, but its members have appeared to be unswayed by the suggested link between freight rail safety and its construction.

The NTSB has stayed clear of the Keystone debate, focusing instead of recommendations to boost the safety of freight rail trains that are currently carrying crude oil. 

The Department of Transportation (DOT) and Association of American Railroads (AAR) announced an agreement in February to lower the speed limit for freight trains carrying crude oil by this summer. They also agreed to inspect tracks more frequently as part of a new safety effort

Under the agreement, freight companies were scheduled to increase by at least one the number of track inspections they do by March 25.

In addition to the track inspections and lower speed limit, the DOT-AAR agreement calls for the freight rail industry to install wheel alignment detectors along every 40 miles of tracks and contribute $5 million to the development of new training programs for transporting hazardous materials.

Hersman said at the NTSB forum this week that more regulations to boost the safety of freight rail oil shipments will be necessary because the consequences of inaction would likely be deadly. 

“The names of the communities are forever etched in the minds of our investigators, and call to mind the destruction or evacuation of towns, the loss of lives, and the environmental and economic impacts: Lac Megantic, Quebec. Casselton, North Dakota. Cherry Valley, Illinois. And others,” she said.