Federal rail chief outlines oil train safety strategy

2014-06-06T12:00:00Z 2014-06-07T14:21:03Z Federal rail chief outlines oil train safety strategyKeith Benman keith.benman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3326 nwitimes.com

Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo said Friday his agency is promoting more pro-active safety programs for oil trains to prevent any incidents in the United States like the disaster in Lac-Megantic, Canada, that killed 47 people last July 6.

"The movement of this product is a game changer," Szabo said of the sharp rise in trainloads of volatile crude oil from North Dakota and other places. "We have to rethink everything we've done and known in the past about safety."

By emergency order of the U.S. Department of Transportation, U.S. railroads must turn over details of their volatile crude oil shipments to states by midnight Saturday. But some railroads are asking states to sign agreements not to disclose the information. Some states are refusing to sign those, saying that the information shouldn't be kept from the public.

As of Friday morning, the Indiana Department of Homeland Security was examining the issue of public access to the federally required reports, spokesman Steven Hatfield said.

When asked Friday about the issue of states releasing the reports to the public, Szabo said it would be looked at in the context of the May 7 emergency order issued by the department of transportation.

"I don't know that we have developed a formal position on that," he said. "But certainly if there are concerns from railroads we will want to take a look at that and see how it complies with the emergency order the department put out."

Szabo specifically referenced the Lac-Megantic disaster in calling for more proactive rail safety programs during a talk Friday before about 200 railroad executives and others at Rail Summit 2014 in a Chicago Union League Club ballroom. After, he addressed reporters specific questions on the subject, including the disclosure reports due to states.

Szabo said railroads already are dramatically safer than a decade ago, with about 50 percent fewer accidents and injuries. He said his agency will not be satisfied until perfection is reached and said pilot programs like the agency's confidential close calls reporting pilot program provide the way forward.

The Federal Railroad Administration Szabo heads is the agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation that oversees rail safety in the United States. Szabo is a former mayor of Riverdale.

The U.S. Department of Transportation put out its emergency order after a string of fiery tank-car accidents in North Dakota, Alabama and Virginia. During his talk on the Grow America Act, Szabo specifically referenced the Lac-Megantic disaster and a fatal passenger rail accident in New York in calling for more proactive rail safety programs.

The oil train disclosures from railroads due to state emergency management agencies include route details, volumes of oil carried and emergency-response information for trains hauling 1 million gallons or more of crude. That's the equivalent of 35 tank cars.

BNSF, Union Pacific and CSX are seeking agreements that the information won't be publicly shared. They said the information is security sensitive and releasing it could put them at a competitive disadvantage.

State emergency officials in several states said communities need to know about the trains and the proposed agreements would violate open-records laws.

"Our state statutes prohibit us from signing," said Lori Getter with Wisconsin Emergency Management. "It will help the responders to make sure they are fully prepared and trained to respond to a potential incident. But it's also good to let the community know."

In addition to Wisconsin, Montana, Illinois, North Dakota, Idaho and Washington state also have declined so far to sign the agreements, according to state emergency officials. Other states have said they intend to meet the railroads' requests.

U.S. crude oil shipments topped 110,000 carloads in the first quarter of 2014. That's an estimated 3.2 billion gallons of crude and the highest volume ever moved by rail, the Association of American Railroads said Thursday. It's spurred by booming production in the Northern Plains.

The Associated Press contributed to his story.

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