Three recent train derailments in Wisconsin has focused political attention on expediting safety upgrades in the rail road industry.
Political leaders in Congress and in several states want to see upgrades to rail cars and rail tracks. Additionally, safety advocates are calling for more training for local responders at train accident sites, greater public access to industry safety records, and more government oversight.
An accident occurred last week in Alma, involving a spill of 18,000 gallons of ethanol which flowed into the Mississippi River. The tankers in this accident reportedly were part of a class that were scheduled to be phased out for tankers with more safety features. This accident was followed the next day with one in Watertown which resulted in crude oil spilled, forcing an evacuation of 35 homes. The tankers involved did have some enhanced safety features. A third accident, also in Watertown, involved a small derailment but no spillage of hazardous materials.
According to news reports, the tanker cars involved in the spill near Alma are DOT-111s. These cars have not been upgraded with safety features carried on the newer CPC-1232s tankers. The new tankers are designed stronger to contain crude in the event of an accident.
The U.S. Department of Transportation had announced regulations earlier this year to implement stricter safety standards for tankers. Tankers in the Watertown accident were the older DOT-111 model that had been upgraded with heat shields but still fell short of the strictest safety standards.
These latest accidents are part of series of rail accidents throughout North America that have safety advocates calling for more stringent safety measures to be enacted.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) has been pressuring the House and Senate conference committee to include safety reforms as part of a final transportation bill that offers new safety measures, better communication between first responders and railroad companies, and transparency. Sen. Baldwin’s original safety proposals were not included in the final version of the safety bill.
Experts have cited that railroad infrastructure are deteriorating at a time when railroad use has been rising, particularly with shipping oil from North Dakota to various markets around the country.
The Association of American Railroads, however, has argued that the rate of train accidents are down significantly, 79% from 1980 and 42% from 2000.
Despite this decrease accident trend, there had been more crude oil spilled in rail accidents in 2013 than in the past 37 years. In some cases, such as Quebec in 2013, 47 people were killed after a spill of 1.5 million gallons of crude oil that was transported from North Dakota. The same train had passed through downtown Milwaukee.
The Alma accident was the third derailment on the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife Refuge in the last nine months alone, raising environmental concerns as well.