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Editorial: Boost rail safety before luck runs out

When it comes to rail safety, we shouldn’t have to count on luck.

The derailment upriver more than a week ago could have been much, much worse. Frankly, it was bad enough.

A derailed BNSF Railway freight train dumped as much as 20,000 gallons of ethanol in Mississippi River backwaters near Alma.

There was no explosion. So far, no significant environmental damage has been reported. But we shouldn’t have to rely on luck.

Consider these quotes:

From Stephen Schiffli, Buffalo County’s director of emergency management: “We dodged a bullet. It should be a wake-up call.”

From Alma Fire Chief Tom Brakke: “It could have been a whole lot worse.”

From Sarah Feinberg, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, who toured the site Thursday: “This is probably a great example of an incident where we feel like we got really lucky.”

We’re foolish to continue counting on luck.

It’s time Congress and the state of Wisconsin take up legislation to improve safety measures, training and transparency for the rail industry and its growing shipment of potentially hazardous cargo.

Minnesota added rail inspectors in the past year, and it’s time such prudent measures be replicated.

Just think of the Mississippi River corridor in our region.

BNSF operates 20 to 30 trains per week carrying at least 1 million gallons of volatile crude oil along the Mississippi River from south of the Twin Cities to the Illinois border. That figure comes from state emergency officials and released in response to a La Crosse Tribune open-records requests. Canadian Pacific moves about seven to 11 trains each week on tracks that hug the Minnesota side of the Mississippi and head east across Wisconsin in La Crosse.

That’s too much to rely on luck.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., pushed rail safety measures that passed the U.S. Senate July 30, but the U.S. House of Representatives failed to act.

Two weeks ago, the House passed a transportation bill — but no mention of rail-safety measures.

We’re tired of hoping for good luck.

We need action — and Baldwin, who checked over the derailment site near Alma — has been a champion for reform.

Her measure would require the Federal Railroad Administration to keep the latest bridge-inspection reports. It would require that our first responders be provided with up-to-the-minute information about the hazardous chemicals that trains are carrying. Her measure requires railroads to plan for the worst of oil spills.

And, significantly, she and many others want to quickly force railroads to stop using older rail cars that have less protection from spills. Those older cars were in use in the Alma derailment and spill.

The older cars eventually will be prohibited by law, but that won’t occur for several more years unless legislators decide that continuing to hope for good luck isn’t much of a strategy given the risks.

In Wisconsin, Sen. Jennifer Shilling and Rep. Jill Billings, both D-La Crosse, want to mirror steps that Minnesota took a year ago and add more inspectors to increase safety.

They also want more training for first responders and more disaster planning initiated by railroads.

Given the cargo that’s coming through our neighborhoods, our cities and along our waterways, such safety measures are not too much to expect.

In related news, derailments bring safety worries to the fore.

This article was from La Crosse Tribune, Wis. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.