Crude Oil Gets Priority Over People; and Amtrak Gets Screwed.

Have you seen the oil trains? There are lots of them. Three locomotives hauling one hundred or more hulking, black tank cars filled with crude oil. They’re coming from Canada or from the huge new Bakken oil fields in North Dakota, and they’re heading for refineries scattered across the U.S. And they are a very big problem.
Because they’re clogging the freight lines all over the country. And they’ve made a shambles of Amtrak’s on-time performance. Because, of course, the tracks are owned by the freight railroads and the movement of Amtrak’s long-distance trains over those tracks is determined by dispatchers working for BNSF or Union Pacific or one of the others. And Amtrak trains are running late — often by several or even many hours — while the oil trains, like Ol’ Man River, just keep rolling along.

And crashing. And blowing up.

Take a look at this story from Politico. The whole piece is required reading, but let me give you the essential details … specifically the number of “incidents” involving oil trains in recent years. Bear in mind that an “incident” can range from one wheel on one tank car slipping off one rail, to an entire oil train crashing, exploding, wiping out a few city blocks and killing 47 people … which is exactly what happened to a Quebec town last year.

            Number of Incidents

                 2010          9
                 2011        34
                 2012        88
                 2013 118
                 2014*       70

              * through May; projected 
                total for entire year: 168

Those numbers are damn sobering, even for the freight railroads, who have already agreed to limit these trains to a maximum speed of 40 mph while passing through populated areas. And they’ve been meeting with federal authorities about new voluntary limitations.

Here’s just one of the ironies coming out of all this: When Amtrak trains run late, passengers miss connections and Amtrak puts up passengers in hotel rooms, charters buses to get them to their destinations, and/or provides ticket refunds and cash vouchers as compensation for inconvenience.  Yet elements in Congress continue to demand that Amtrak cut costs to reduce the miserly amount of federal support it gets every year. 

Seems clear to me that enforcing existing agreements, implementing new regulations, and, if necessary, passing legislation to make sure Amtrak’s long-distance trains run on time would reduce that $140 million significantly. Now that’s the kind of cost-cutting I could get behind!