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.”
A key piece of legislation in this regard is the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (Public Law 110-432). According to the Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) this directs that agency to issue “new safety regulations (to) govern different areas related to railroad safety” ranging from work hours for rail employees to safety procedures and track inspections. But as NBC News noted in a report four years after the law was enacted, the railroads immediately deployed their immense lobbying resources to undermine the law, a task in which they had support from both political parties. NBC reported that the nation’s major railroads argued that the safety measures required by the RSIA are “unaffordable” and “that the technology still needs to be refined, even though Amtrak already operates a similar system from Boston to Washington DC.” NBC quotes one safety advocate saying that the strategy has been to “chip away” at the law – slowly but surely rendering it toothless, rather than seeking to repeal it (which might generate bad publicity).
In other words the railroads seek a situation where they are accountable only to far-away federal bureaucrats who the industry can guide and lobby rather than state or local officials whose communities are directly impacted by their actions. As the recent rash of fatal crashes and toxic spills (see links below) attests, this simply is not good enough. This is not a theoretical issue. According to the safety advocacy organization Operation Lifesaver (citing FRA data) there were over 2000 vehicle-train collisions last year resulting in 244 deaths and 944 injuries. These numbers have declined over the years – in the early 80s 7000+ crashes per year was a normal number – but it is far from acceptable. Progress has been made, but the industry and government have a responsibility to reduce those number to zero. The group notes that according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration “a motorist is almost 20 times more likely to die in a crash involving a train than a collision involving another motor vehicle.” The industry needs to devote more effort to putting a stop to this and less into lobbying for looser regulations.
As a Portland attorney, however, I would urge readers to remember that our laws are sufficiently broad to ensure that even privileged industries like the railways can be held accountable for reckless or negligent behavior by both their employees (when workplace injuries result) and by the communities in which they operate. Accountability is what lies at the heart of our civil court system, and railroads do not get to evade that just because it would be more convenient for them to do so.
Northwest Public Radio: In Second Attempt at Oil Train Regulation, Spokane City Councilman Targets Rail Car Owners