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More oil trains fuel debate on railroad safety

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POSTED January 27, 2014 11:56 p.m.

Moving oil and its byproducts such as gasoline is inherently dangerous.

It can be dangerous by truck. That was driven home on April 7, 1982, in a crash shortly after midnight in one of the three Caldecott Tunnels on Highway 24 between Orinda and Oakland. Seven people died when a gasoline truck exploded.

It can be dangerous by pipeline. Seven people were killed, another 36 injured, and an entire neighborhood leveled when the PG&E natural gasoline pipeline blew up two years ago in San Bruno.

And it can be dangerous by train. Forty-seven people died in Quebec last July when a runaway oil train derailed in the center of a town.

There is little doubt that safety involving all three forms of fuel transportation has improved over the years. Risks in transportation, though, will never be eliminated.

And it is safe to say the most controllable transport is by pipelines followed by rail followed by truck. It has everything to do with variables and the volume of oil moved. A truck interfaces with thousands of other vehicles all driven by people with different motoring skills and attitudes and their own set of distractions. They also deal with widely varied road conditions.

Trains interface with less vehicles but have a unique set of track conditions. Pipelines have minimal interface with moving objects and human judgment.

And as much as we’d like to avoid moving flammable materials such as oil through heavy concentrations of population it is unavoidable given the fact that is where the most consumption of such liquids takes place.

The recent spate of oil train derailments has drawn attention to railroad safety.

Oil is moved through the San Joaquin Valley to and from Bakersfield by rail. There are two routes — the Santa Fe through Escalon and the Union Pacific through Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon.

Oil isn’t exactly a big concern here but once Monterey oil shake production ramps up it will be. Currently our biggest exposure is to other flammable liquids such as the chemical tanker car derailment 24 years ago in thick fog that forced the evacuation of more than 3,000 Manteca residents.

Union Pacific by any standard has done an impressive job at targeting safety. It’s sound business practice. Besides reducing liability, anything that keeps the movement of freight on time and in one piece enhances the bottom line and avoids expensive reconstruction.

The movement of oil by tank cars has exploded both literally and figuratively in recent years. There were 400,000 tank cars full of oil moved by rail in 2013 compared to 9,500 in 2008, based on data gleaned from the Association of American Railroads.

Some two-thirds of the production from North Dakota’s Bakken Oil Shale is moved by rail compared to 10 percent of all oil nationwide.

There are few options available. That’s because the best way to move the most oil has been stymied by environmentalists and Washington, D.C.

While railroads and environmentalists can cite figures that note oil spills by rail amounted to 95,000 gallons from 2002 to 2012 compared to 19.9 million spilled from pipelines during the same time, the pipeline spills are minuscule when compared to the amount of oil they move.

Railroads are essentially 200 virtual pipelines crisscrossing the country.

Those virtual pipelines are all exposed to the elements and traffic.

And unlike what happens when pipelines are expanded, railroads can substantially increase hazardous cargo movement without going through an exhaustive, time consuming, and expensive environmental review process.

Railroads actually have greater latitude with ignoring the environmental review laws than almost any other industry. It is a good thing as it would subject railroads to lengthy environmental fights and would have a chilling effect on our economy.

That said, is it really wise for the federal government to essentially encourage the creation of more and more rolling trains moving flammable materials when there is a way to avoid having large numbers of them rumble through our cities and countryside?

All it takes is for one errant motorist, an undetected track maintenance problem, or an act of nature to turn a 65 mph oil train into a flammable bomb that explodes on impact.

We can never eliminate risk. But by forcing oil producers to rely on rail instead of pipelines, we are increasing the risk for the loss of lives and devastation of neighborhoods and towns.



This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or (209) 249-3519.

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