Media hysteria and Crude By Rail - if it bleeds it leads...

  There is probably no statement in news journalism that is more of a truism than "if it bleeds, it leads." Sensational journalism has always had its place, going back to the foundations of printed or reported journalism. It is no coincidence that CNN branded itself as "Headline News," CNN and the entire 24 hour news cycle are seemingly dedicated to the idea of this truism. Have you ever heard of a breaking news report of a good story?

  This truth of this type of journalism feeds into our fears, it is intended to elicit an emotional response that makes you watch the story; it is truly fear based news. It has its roots in the flight or fight response inherent in our human nature. The reason that this type of reporting works is that it creates a physiological response in reaction to what our brain perceives as a harmful event or threat to survival¹. Almost every breaking news story has a few elements; there is some immediate danger, the end of the story (for the “best stories”) is yet to be determined and there are very few facts presented, most of the reporting is an emotional appeal meant to elicit an emotional response. This leads us to the media and its handling of the phenomenon known as Crude by Rail and rail safety.

  Let me start by saying that the train derailment that occurred on the morning of July 6, 2013, in Lac-Megantic, Quebec was a horrific accident and that the loss of 47 lives and property associated with the event were tragic and that my heartfelt condolences and compassion go out to everyone involved.

  Unfortunately when we transport good or passengers accidents happen, we have to learn from them and improve. One need not look further than Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 (239 crew/passengers), Air France Flight 447 (228 crew/passenger), the sinking of MV Sewol (295 crew/passengers), the Titanic (1,514 crew/passengers), or even the cruise line industry where there were 8 virus outbreaks in 3 months at the start of 2014. Every industry gets better after these incidents and US rail will be no exception, US rail is already safer today than July 6, and will be safer tomorrow than it is today.

  Today we find ourselves in a period of hypersensitivity on trains moving crude by rail and the rail industry. I have a great deal of pride in this industry, it is something I have been involved in for the last 15 years, starting out making $15,000.00 a year at the very bottom of the industry. As my own career path has grown I have watched this industry grow as well. I have watched this industry become more inclusive of women and minorities, I have watched it continue to reach out and intentionally hire veterans like myself, and have watched it experience a renaissance like few industries in our history. As well, I have seen the rail industry become a very safe industry.

  Railroads are investing in their networks, technology and people like never before. This investment has paid huge dividends, 2012 was the safest year ever for America’s railroads, and likely 2013 was as well. From 1980 to 2012 train accidents fell 80%, the rail employee injury rate fell 85% and the grade crossing collision rate fell 82%². This industry reinvested $25.2 billion in 2013 and $525 billion since 1980² and 2014 reinvestment likely will be the largest on record. As part of this investment railroads are collectively spending billions of dollars on Positive Train Control, a technological tool that is designed to stop or slow trains to prevent some types of accidents. This is in addition to the billions that they are spending on their infrastructure, equipment, training and people.

  As well, the US is home to the world’s largest rail research facility, the Transportation Technology Center, Inc. (TTCI), in Pueblo, Colorado, a subsidiary of the American Association of Railroads (AAR). While you have probably never heard of TTCI, our nation is safer because of the technological developments that have occurred at this facility and they continue to do great work making the railroads safer every day. Some current projects at TTCI include: detecting broken rail and wheel defects with fiber-optic technology, examining the effectiveness of larger footprint ties, continued testing of hot bearing detectors and countless other projects, for more information you can visit their website at www.aar.com ³.

  There is the also the AAR Tank Car Committee who works diligently to develop technical standards on how tank cars are designed and constructed. Specific to crude and ethanol, the Committee’s standards today exceed and have exceeded federal regulatory requirements. Tank cars for crude oil and ethanol ordered after October 2011 are built to a standard that exceeds federal requirements; the industry did this in the absence of federal action, and continues to work on projects to make tank cars safer. The projects they are working on include improvements to safety relief valves, bottom outlet valve operators, constant contact side bearings and a whole host of other issues.

  Wondering just how much crude is moving by rail, the way the media is reporting it, there is an incident with every train that moves… In the US last year the railroads moved over 11.5 billion gallons of crude oil (yes, BILLION). Of the 11.5 billion gallons, the railroads spilled 1.15 million gallons⁴, this means that 99.99% of the crude in the US arrived safely and without incident. As well, when the rail industry report spills and incidents, they report if there is ANY leak. When the pipeline industry reports, with few exceptions, they only report on incidents that excess of 5 gallons. Between 2002 and 2012 US railroads spilled a total of 95,000 gallons of crude oil, the pipeline industry in the same time spilled 19.9 million gallons(2). Even if you add 2013 to the mix, railroads spill far less than pipelines in totality, they have fewer incidents and the incidents they have spill less oil.

  So while the media focuses on scaring the heck out of you, I am not scared, I am proud to work in the rail industry. I have been a part of an industry that has been a great leader in hiring and promoting veterans, women, minorities and doing their best every day to send their people home safely every single day. The railroad moves America’s goods, without it the economy would lose a great part of its competitive advantage; we have the greatest freight rail system in the world! The truth is that you are in greater danger driving your car, 33,561 deaths in 2012⁵, than you are being impacted by crude by rail, and tomorrow’s crude oil will be moving safer than todays as this industry is committed to getting better each and every single day. Some of the best and brightest of our country work in this industry and I look forward to the future of the railroad and have full faith and confidence in our operators and would ride on any train on any railroad across this great nation.

  1. Cannon, Walter (1932). Wisdom of the Body. United States: W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393002055.
  2. American Association of Railroads - https://www.aar.org/safety/Pages/default.aspx
  3. 2003 TTCI Annual Report - http://www.aar.com/
  4. http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2014/01/20/215143/more-oil-spilled-from-trains-in.html
  5. http://www.nhtsa.gov/About+NHTSA/Press+Releases/NHTSA+Data+Confirms+Traffic+Fatalities

Disclaimer - opinions stated or expressed are my own personal opinions and not reflective or meant imply those thoughs and opinions of my employers or any affiliated associations or companies. 

2 Replies

  • While the media may exaggerate these incidents, as it does many other things, the industry continues to keep shooting itself in the foot, witness this week in WV.

    The rail industry can spout it's safety record and efforts all it wants, but the message will always be blocked out by 1 bad incident.

    Time to change the message and the approach.The tin ear is not effective.

  • An interesting point is made at the end of a long article how the oil industry has insisted on shipping Bakken crude without first removing the volatile gases because it would cost them more, and they don't care about the railroads absorbing the costs from leaking, fires, and explosions.  One in a thousand isn't good enough.

    Railway Age, Monday, February 16, 2015

    Oil train mishaps reveal tank car strengths and limitations

    Written by David Thomas, Contributing Editor

    Re: CP derailment of CPC-1232 tank cars at Crowsnest Pass, Alberta.

    CP derailment of CPC-1232 tank cars at Crowsnest Pass, Alberta.

    (excerpt)...The oil industry has argued that railroads are to blame for not keeping their trains on track, a contention accepted by the Federal Railroad Administration and its sister agency the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which have chosen to ignore the matter of “hot oil” being loaded directly from wells to tank cars without first cooking off the explosive dissolved gases.

    Such heat treatment is routine in Texas, from where equally volatile light crude has been shipped by rail for years without a single explosive incident.

    The oil industry says there is a ready market for the extracted gases in Texas, but none in North Dakota. Therefore, say the producers, the explosive gases are best shipped to refineries while still dissolved in the crude. Otherwise, they would have to be shipped away by rail or flared into the atmosphere.

    The weekend events suggest that oil train explosions will continue as long as the federal governments of both countries permit the shipping of explosive crude without first stripping it of explosive gases.

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