The fatal crash of a commuter train near New York last month focused many people’s attention on deteriorating infrastructure and the dangers it causes. But closer to home we also have examples here in the Northwest of the problems caused by ageing rail infrastructure and, equally critically, the reluctance of both government and private industry to take the steps necessary to safeguard the public.
As Washington State’s Northwest Public Radio recently outlined an initiative is underway near Spokane to hold Union Pacific and other large railroads responsible for the damage they can do to local communities. According to the radio network, the proposed ballot initiative (which, if accepted, would be voted on at a local election next year) “could prohibit coal and oil companies from transporting their products through the city by rail.” City leaders have been forced to put forward this proposal focusing on the owners of individual rail cars rather than the railroad itself because, according to one City Council member “we also engaged in negotiations with the railroads and they said, ‘you know, we’re just pulling these cars, we don’t own them.”
The problem is that under current law the railroads and the companies for which they haul materials each attempt to shift responsibility for accidents and environmental damage to the other. In addition, the radio network reports, “railroad companies have also argued federal law trumps local regulation anyway.”