Council Expected to Call for Oil Train Safety

As accidents and derailments pile up, Philadelphia City Council takes a closer look.

Philadelphia City Council is expected to pass a resolution today calling for higher safety standards for the oil trains that move through town — and greater transparency in how rail companies and local government agencies would handle an emergency here.

“There have already been two train derailments in Philadelphia … but we dodged a bullet because neither fell into the river, exploded or caught fire—but how long can our luck hold out?” said a posting at the Delaware River Keeper Network website, urging supporters to attend today’s meeting and testify for the resolution. “Not long, if you look at all the train derailments that are happening across the US and Canada.”

The safety of oil-carrying trains — known pejoratively by activists as “bomb trains” — has been of increasing concern in Philadelphia after two incidents over the last year: In the first, oil tankers on a train crossing the Schuylkill River derailed on the bridge; in the second incident — earlier this year — 11 cars from an 111-car train derailed in South Philly.

There were no injuries in either derailment, but oil-carrying trains have proven dangerous. A 2013 explosion killed 47 people in Quebec. And last month, oil tankers in West Virginia derailed and exploded.  In recent weeks oil trains have derailed in Alberta and near Galena, Illinois, further raising concerns.

Recent reports suggest at least 1.5 million Pennsylvania residents are at risk, living near tracks that carry the trains bearing the oil to destination refineries in Philadelphia. In recent weeks, Gov. Tom Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey have both called on federal officials to raise safety standards for oil-carrying trains.

An op-ed in today’s New York Times suggests the issue is of increasing national concern:

After that (Quebec) accident, federal officials promised to develop sweeping new regulations to make sure nothing like it happens in the United States. In the interim, the Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring railroads to get federal permission before leaving trains unattended with their engines running, a major factor in the Lac-Mégantic explosion. And the railroads agreed to a number of voluntary steps, including keeping oil trains under 50 m.p.h.

But more than a year and a half after Lac-Mégantic, new regulations have yet to be finalized as the railroad and oil industries argue about various proposed provisions. The emergency order didn’t end the practice of railroads’ leaving oil trains on tracks with their engines running; it simply required companies to have a written plan for doing so. And without regulations, reporting or penalties, the public has only the railroads’ word they are complying with the 50 m.p.h. speed limit.

For trackside communities, the stakes are obviously high.

The council meets at 10 a.m. today.