Those long freight trains that can be seen lumbering along Capital Region tracks, many of them carrying oil to the Port of Albany, are good for the economy. They can also be, if they derail like the one in Quebec earlier this month, a disaster. Safety procedures must be strictly followed to keep these trains on the tracks, and they apparently were not followed in Quebec. But more must also be done to keep their contents inside in case they go off.
And, thanks to human error and track and equipment problems, they will go off. Derailments occur regularly around the country, sometimes causing fires, oil spills or toxic releases.
This year there have already been two derailments in our area, one in Glenville, the other in Montgomery County. Fortunately, neither resulted in any injuries, significant property damage (aside from the trains) or environmental damage.
In the Glenville crash, which occurred in February, the train wasn’t carrying oil or hazardous chemicals, just chicken feed, which spilled on the tracks. But it was right next to a mobile home community and close to the town’s drinking water wells; had the cars contained oil or chemicals, it could have been a disaster.
In the other crash, which happened in June, two trains derailed just outside the village of Fonda. Forty-five freight cars were involved, some carrying hazardous materials. The cars went crashing and tumbling, but did not leak. If they had, Don DeLillo’s novel “White Noise,” with its life-changing “airborne toxic event” caused by a train derailment, comes to mind.
After a series of derailments in Wisconsin, Illinois and Pennsylvania that released ethanol and toxic chemicals into the water and air, the National Transportation Safety Board did an investigation. It found that the design of the DOT-111 tank car, which carries most of the dangerous goods in this country, was “inadequate” and the cars were “subject to damage and catastrophic loss of hazardous materials.”
The Associaton of American Railroads then published new standards, including use of thicker steel, for cars built after October 2011. But the older cars, the ones involved in the Quebec crash, could remain as is.
This shouldn’t be left to a railroad association; rail safety is the federal government’s responsibility. Sen. Chuck Schumer Monday called on the U.S. Department of Transportation to start phasing out the older tankers, requiring railroads to either retrofit, repurpose or replace them. It should do so — before the next disastrous derailment.