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Senators push to fund crude oil safety training for smaller railroads

  • McClatchy Washington Bureau
  • Published Thursday, May 15, 2014, at 9:40 a.m.
  • Updated Friday, May 16, 2014, at 6:17 a.m.

— America’s smaller railroads lack the capability to offer safety training in the shipment of crude oil and ethanol, and two top Senate appropriators asked federal regulators Thursday to fund those efforts.

Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, wrote Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx requesting the creation of the Short Line Safety Institute to help improve safety on the nation’s smaller railroads, which are carrying an increasing amount of hazardous materials.

“These short lines play an important role as a feeder system,” the senators wrote, “helping connect local communities to the national railroad system.

“Unfortunately,” they continued, “many of these short line railroads lack the resources that larger railroads are able to dedicate to safety training.”

Larger railroads, including BNSF, Norfolk Southern and CSX, have begun to offer training for firefighters and other emergency personnel at the Department of Transportation’s railroad test center in Pueblo, Colo., and in other locations along the routes of crude oil shipments.

But two of the most high-profile derailments involving crude oil in the past year took place on short line railroads, which operate about a third of the country’s 150,000-mile rail system.

The worst of those accidents, in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killed 47 people. The Maine-based rail operator filed for bankruptcy and was sold in December.

Railroads carried more than 400,000 carloads of crude oil last year, according to industry figures. While the exact amount of crude oil hauled by smaller railroads isn’t available, they’re increasingly players in the business.

The American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association estimates that around 80 of the 550 companies it represents are hauling crude. The average size of a short line railroad is 100 miles, with around 25 employees, according to Rich Timmons, the organization’s president. The nation’s largest railroads, in contrast, have tens of thousands of miles of track and thousands of employees.

A pilot project will be up and running by January, he said, and would start with crude oil and expand to ethanol and other hazardous commodities.

Timmons said the program would help smaller railroads haul crude oil in the safest manner possible. A later phase of the project would help train first responders in communities the railroads serve.

He said that the voluntary safety effort would be supported initially by research and development funds from the Federal Railroad Administration.

“While they’re not extensive, they’re certainly sufficient for us to lay the groundwork for the program,” Timmons said.

Email: ctate@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @tatecurtis

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