Commentary: Oil trains need big enough crew for safety

Legislation would ensure trains carrying hazardous materials have workers ready if a problem arises.

By Derek Stanford and Mike Sells / For The Herald

Anyone who lives in Snohomish County can tell train traffic is increasing.

More passenger trains are running to and from Seattle, serving commuters and baseball fans alike. More freight trains are running goods from the Port of Everett to British Columbia, and more oil trains are passing through our region on the way to refineries along the coast.

These are all welcome indicators of economic development, but one of them brings with it a potential threat to public safety.

The shale oil boom in the Bakken oil fields, in North Dakota and eastern Montana, has exploded oil train traffic across Washington. More than 1 million barrels of oil are shipped through our state each year, and the trains that carry them are getting longer; many now stretch more than a mile. Yet as more trains pass through the area, safety regulations have not kept up.

Washington used to impose minimum requirements for train crew sizes, ensuring more hands and eyes were available to help move the train to its destination safely, to prevent or mitigate breakdowns, or to serve as first responders in the event of an accident involving their train. But those minimums were removed in 1966, and train crews have been steadily shrinking ever since, even though the freight they move has become more volatile.

Some rail industry leaders have even expressed a desire to eliminate crews entirely, relying solely on technology to operate trains; even those with more than 100 tanker cars of hazardous materials traveling up to 60 miles per hour. Commercial planes flown in the United States are required to have co-pilots and additional flight crew members based on the nature of the flight route and cargo. Shouldn’t we require similar safety measures on trains carrying highly combustible materials through our communities?

The length of these trains constitutes a growing challenge for their operators; the longer the train, the more cars that are beyond the crew’s line of sight. If the rear portion of a train catches fire, which is known to happen, it’s possible an engineer or conductor positioned on the opposite side of the locomotive cab might not even be able to see it. In addition to carrying greater risks, the growing length of trains slows down response time and costs valuable minutes in an emergency. In 2016, an oil train heading to a refinery in Tacoma derailed and caught fire in the Columbia River Gorge. The town of Mosier, Oregon, was evacuated and cleanup continues to this day.

Fortunately, some basic common-sense steps would improve public safety regulations for the freight rail industry. HB 1841 and SB 5877, cosponsored by bipartisan legislators in both chambers including many from Snohomish County, would set minimum standards for multiple-person train crews on trains carrying hazardous materials. HB 1841 passed the House Jan. 30 and is scheduled for a public hearing in the Senate Labor & Commerce Committee on Feb. 20. It provides a simple but effective way to put well-trained people on freight trains before an accident occurs. It makes public safety a priority, and it catches our state up to the real-world risks of train traffic today — something that is long overdue.

This is a public safety imperative that must not wait any longer.

State Sen. Derek Sanford, D-Bothell, represents the 1st Legislative District. State Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, represents the 38th Legislative District.

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