Rep. Larsen, D-Wash., Speaks on Rail Safety

In Hard news, Non-fiction on November 12, 2014 at 5:33 pm

Written by Alex Ashley

STANWOOD, WASH. — The hushed whispers of concerned citizens over cups of hot coffee were silenced Thursday night when the moderator for the evening’s deliberations got things underway, introducing a three-part symposium before a sparse crowd of about 20.

Community members, equal parts curious and apprehensive, were addressed on the theme: “Rail Safety in Our Community.”

Terry Robertson, president of the [Stanwood] Rotary Club, opened the proceedings, setting a personal tone with an anecdote about his father, a rail worker who worked on the railroad most of his life.

“All the things we demand as consumers necessitate using railroads to transport goods,” he said, “so the question becomes, not ‘why railroad?’ but ‘how railroad?’”

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., then took the podium; the congressman had spoken earlier that day at a roundtable on veterans’ affairs.

“When you run for office,” said the congressman, “you get to pick the issues that you are going to run on.  When you are in office, the issues pick you.”

Larsen said the issue of rail safety was an issue that was his responsibility, given his standing as a member of the Transportation Infrastructure Committee — a committee that regulates the transportation of materials — and as the only member on the committee from the state of Washington.

“From a legislative and regulatory perspective,” Larsen stated, “the question becomes ‘how do you shove as much safety into the movement of crude oil on our railways as possible?’”

Larsen then highlighted his perspective on railroad safety, highlighting the five areas he felt should be immediately improved: raising the federal regulation standard for tank cars, which he reports is actually lower than the industry standard; improving rail line inspection procedures; clarifying hazard classifications; and addressing the training and resource needs for first responders.

When it comes to crude oil, Larsen said “the technology to pull the stuff out of the ground far exceeds our ability to transport it,” underscoring the reality that transporting oil by rail will continue to be a consistent concern for our communities.

Courtney Wallace, regional director of public affairs for the BNSF Railway Company, presented an overview of the growth and evolution of rail funding in relation to economic growth.

“As the economy improves, “she explained, “rail traffic is rebounding.  As agriculture and manufacturing industries go back up, they are feeding rail traffic.”

Wallace said these spikes in rail activity will also create a need for greater safety measures, and that BNSF plans to address these safety needs, in tandem with governmental efforts, by spending $5 billion by the year’s end to improve the quality of tank car design, as well as rail safety standards and preventative procedures.

As rail activity continues to grow, she said, “our core foundation of safety must continue to get stronger and stronger.”

Dr. Hart Hodges, an economics professor at Western Washington University, admonished attendees to take a closer look at the issues at hand, rather than simplifying them to a clever bumper sticker on the back of a car.  He urged them to take some of the posturing and emotion out of the equation and look at things more comprehensively.

Hodges’ comments subtly addressed the causes of anxiety for many people: What are the risks associated with moving crude oil by train? What if a tank car explodes? Aren’t there dangers in allowing these railways to pass through major metropolitan areas?

“People want to focus on the parts of the equation that are easily measurable,” he said regarding their concerns about rail safety, “but when you get into some of the deeper questions, the less quantifiable dimensions of these issues, it’s harder to deal with.”

Hodges also recognized that emotional perspectives can often cloud peoples’ view of the issues being discussed.

“We are not intuitive statisticians,” he said, “and we need to get past that, and start asking harder questions.”

Originally published: Stanwood-Camano News, Nov. 11, 2014.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: