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Author's profile photo Lauren McCallum

Improving the Safety of Railroad Transportation of Hazardous Materials

July was not a good month for rail transportation, whether you are talking passenger or freight rail. The devastating derailment and explosion of petroleum tank cars in Lac-Megantic, Quebec and the shocking passenger train derailment in Santiago de Compostela, Spain have reinforced the importance of rail safety in all of our minds. Especially for anyone connected to the chemical industry which, in 2012 in North American, transported 173,344 tons of chemicals and allied products by rail, according to the AAR.

I’m wondering whether the wide availability of videos of both disasters makes these accidents more real and therefore more impactful, or more like movies that we can distance ourselves from.

Recall the 2010 movie Unstoppable, about a runaway train with eight cars of molten phenol headed straight for a fictional Pennsylvania town. Watching the efforts to stop the train, which include another engine’s derailment along the way, was entertaining only because audiences knew that in a big star, family thriller, disaster would be averted in the end. Only problem is that the movie was based on a 2001 incident that could easily have ended badly, when a runaway train with two cars of molten phenol traveled some 60 miles through Ohio before being stopped. Only problem is…. these things really happen.

It is for real reasons like this and the Quebec disaster that the US Federal Railroad Administration is having a public meeting “addressing the transportation of hazardous materials by rail” in Washington on August 27-28. Anyone interested in topic can attend in person or via teleconference, and I look forward to finding out both who is speaking and what they have to say. See the Federal Register for more information about the meeting.

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