NTSB calls for improved rail safety as oil shipments increase

Because of its size, location and history, Chicago has long been a hub for both passenger trains and freight trains. Most of the time, this is advantageous. But when it comes to hazards posed by train accidents, Chicagoans are particularly at risk.

Recently, the hazards of train accidents in dense urban areas have been a top concern for the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB has been working with its equivalent agency in Canada to study potential problems with rail safety in light of the fact that shipments of crude oil and other volatile materials have increased dramatically in recent years.

America is in the midst of an oil boom, largely due to hydraulic fracturing in places like North Dakota. Since 2005, there has been a 400 percent increase in the amount of crude oil shipped by rail in the U.S. Trains transporting oil sometimes reach a length of more than 100 cars.

The hazards associated with this increase are somewhat obvious. The NTSB has noted that it “is concerned that major loss of life, property damage and environmental consequences can occur when large volumes of crude oil or other flammable liquids are transported on a single train involved in an accident.”

At this point, regulators seem to be considering a number of options to address and improve rail safety. They include:

  • Imposing new safety rules
  • Changing routes for trains carrying volatile cargo to avoid heavily populated areas
  • Improving classification methods for hazardous cargo before it gets shipped
  • Tightening safety standards for rail cars that transport oil
  • Ensuring that rail carriers have plans in place for quickly responding to “worst-case discharges of the entire quantity of product carried on a train”

The current oil boom is expected to continue and to grow. As it does, regulators need to ensure that safety is a top priority and that Chicagoans are not exposed to unreasonable levels of risk as this highly flammable cargo rumbles down the tracks in and around our city.

Source: Chicago Tribune, “New Illinois law limits probation in fatal crashes,” Joe Mahr, Jan. 5, 2014