Two freight train derailments on back-to-back days in Wisconsin have once more called national attention to the risks posed by transporting volatile chemicals and oil by rail. The accidents came shortly after railroad corporations succeeded in getting Congress to extend the deadline for implementing a long-required safety system known as positive train control (PTC). They also occurred just days before the release of an infrastructure survey that determined as many as 250 railroad bridges across the United States need significant repairs.
That latter information, collected by the environmental groups Waterkeeper Alliance and ForestEthics, focused particularly on the potential for the destruction of wildlife and the poisoning of groundwater and soil from trains that crash or go off the tracks. Environmental damage is a significant, but often overlooked, consequence of chemical spills, fires and explosions.
The worst did not happen as a result of either of the derailments in Wisconsin. The first, near the town of Alma on Nov. 7, 2015, dumped several thousand gallons of ethanol from a BNSF train into the Mississippi River. A small, voluntary and short evacuation of residents followed, but no injuries were reported.
On November 8, several oil tanker cars being hauled by Canadian Pacific derailed close to Watertown. A larger evacuation followed, but, again, no one suffered injuries. To recognize just how much danger the railroad crewmembers, emergency responders and Watertown residents faced, one need only think back to the massive oil train explosion and fire in Lac-Megantic on June 6, 2013. Some 50 people died in that conflagration, and the downtown of the small city in Quebec was all but destroyed.
A broken rail is being blamed for causing the oil train accident near Watertown. The cause of the Alma derailment remains under investigation. Possible explanations include exceeding a safe operating speed or posted speed limit along the right-of-way, track damage and faulty equipment such as failing brakes or damaged trucks. Determining the reason for each train crash is essential for preventing similar accidents.
Research into railroad wrecks and how to stop them led federal regulators to ask rail companies to start using PTC as early as a decade ago. A requirement to do so was supposed to take effect by the end of this year, but stalling and cost complaints by nearly every railroad from Amtrak and CSX to Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific led Congress to extend the deadline for compliance for several more years.
While no evidence yet exists to show that better bridges or widely deployed PTC would have stopped either of the trains traveling through Wisconsin from derailing, reports on other railroad accidents have concluded that infrastructure improvements and automated braking system would have saved lives and protected the environment. Rail corporations have legal and ethical obligations to make the operation of their trains as safe as possible. If they do not meet those obligations, the next Lac-Megantic tragedy could be only a matter of when, not if.