Editorials

Editorial: California makes progress on train safety by inspecting railroad bridges

It’s encouraging that important steps are being taken to make sure oil trains rumbling through California don’t derail, but the job isn’t nearly done yet.

For the first time, the California Public Utilities Commission plans to check behind safety inspections by private railroad companies of rail bridges across the state, focusing on those traversed by trains carrying crude oil.

The commission is deploying two new bridge inspectors – among seven new rail inspectors hired with money allocated by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature in response to rising concerns about more oil trains in California. The two inspectors will likely work as a team, visiting four bridges a week. They won’t be doing full inspections, but rather reviewing that the railroads’ safety checks are in proper order.

At that rate, it would take 50 years to check all 5,000 rail bridges, as The Sacramento Bee’s Tony Bizjak reported this week. That obviously isn’t fast enough.

So the commission is compiling a priority list of the first 30 bridges for visits in 2015. Here are two possible ones that should be strongly considered: the heavily used, 103-year-old I Street Bridge in downtown Sacramento and the Clear Creek Trestle in Feather River Canyon. Both are expected to be on primary routes for oil trains.

It’s also significant that state and local officials are pushing for a more complete risk assessment of Valero’s proposal to run oil trains through Northern California to its Benicia refinery.

Late last month, the utilities commission and the state Office of Spill Prevention and Response joined the Sacramento Area Council of Governments and the cities of Davis and Sacramento in raising concerns that the city of Benicia’s draft environmental impact report underestimated the potential of explosion and fire from two 50-car trains going daily through Roseville, Sacramento, West Sacramento, Davis and other cities. Attorney General Kamala Harris has jumped on the bandwagon, too.

For one thing, state officials say they want more detail on how Benicia officials came up with a projection that a train derailment would spill 100 gallons or more of oil only once every 111 years along the 69 miles of track between Roseville and Benicia.

At the same time, California’s two U.S. senators are pressing federal transportation officials to expand their requirements for railroads to notify first responders of oil shipments. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s emergency order, issued in May, covers only shipments of at least 1 million gallons (about 35 rail cars) of crude from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota.

Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein say that notification ought to be required for any quantity of Bakken, or any kind of crude oil or other flammable liquid, for that matter.

They’re right. If safety is the goal, there’s no logical reason that smaller shipments and other kinds of crude aren’t covered. The notification mandate is among proposed rules on oil trains that federal officials plan to impose by year’s end. They also include phasing out older rail cars, lower speed limits and more comprehensive response plans for spills.

Those federal regulations will become even more crucial if California’s two major railroad companies – BNSF and Union Pacific – win their federal lawsuit filed Tuesday that challenges a new state law requiring them to come up with oil spill prevention and response plans. The companies argue that federal law prevents states from imposing such safety rules.

This is often how important safety improvements get made – step by step, at different levels of government, with advocates having to keep pushing for stronger protections against industry resistance. Everyone involved should have one priority – putting public safety first and foremost.

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