Work remains on rail safety

It happened, the grab-your-gut moment.

Thursday morning, three tanker cars in a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train carrying highly flammable Bakken crude oil derailed below the Magnolia Bridge in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood, inching along at only 5 mph. None of the oil spilled, and BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas told The Herald that the vehicles involved weren’t outdated DOT-111 cars similar to the ones involved in the explosion that killed 47 people in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic in 2013, but “enhanced” CPC-1232 tankers. (As Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, notes, the CPC-1232 tankers are the railroad-preferred lowest-common denominator safety replacement for the DOT-111.)

Seventy percent of tanker cars that weave through Seattle and Snohomish County are the safer variety, Melonas said. Are 70-30 odds palatable for residents who live near at-grade crossings in Marysville or Edmonds?

Washington’s congressional delegation has been responsive to crude-by-rail and unsafe DOT-111 tank cars, derisively called “the Ford pinto of rail cars.” Larsen, in particular, exhibits vigilance and leadership, holding both railroads and the U.S. Department of Transportation accountable.

“New rules for transporting crude oil by rail are an important step toward making sure communities near rail lines that carry crude oil and other hazardous materials are safe,” Larsen said in a Wednesday statement after the release of the U.S. DOT’s draft rules addressing the safe transport of crude by rail. “But now we’ve got to translate rules on paper into safety on the rails.”

The united front that is bird-dogging crude-by-rail could spur meaningful reform, including lowering the too-high one-million gallon threshold for notifying states about oil trains lumbering through. Another hat tip to Larsen, a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. In fact, Larsen’s first Congressional win was quasi-related — a bipartisan pipeline safety bill in 2001. Now, Larsen needs to concentrate his considerable political talents on coal-by-rail.

On Thursday, the Puget Sound Regional Council issued its evaluation of regional impacts for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point. The terminal will bring 18 new trains per day, each 1.6 miles long. Gateway would generate the most traffic fallout of any of the Northwest’s bulk-terminal proposals, the report reads, including a 147 percent hike in “gate-down times” in Marysville alone. There will be a 2- to 6-minute delay per crossing for emergency vehicles and even an environmental-justice component, with low-income and minority populations shouldering a disproportionate burden.

Larsen, an early proponent of Gateway Pacific, points to the creation of hundreds of industrial jobs in Whatcom County. Just as compelling, Larsen told The Herald that “we’ll still get increased traffic and freight congestion,” Gateway or no, a reality underscored in the PSRC report. (“Statewide freight rail volume will grow by an additional 130 percent by 2035,” the report states.) One argument: The value of Gateway is it guarantees that BNSF will invest in mitigation.

But there are wiser public-interest cudgels to improve capacity than building the biggest coal-export facility on the West Coast. Let the congressional united front on oil-car safety translate as smoothly and effectively into a united front to stop coal-export facilities.

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