Editorial: Making railroad crossings safer

Published May 30, 2014 at 12:01AM

Bend Mayor Jim Clinton and City Councilor Sally Russell have put some focus on a serious issue — the safety at Bend’s railroad crossings. What they suggest, though, may not be the best place to spend money to improve overall rail safety.

They want railways and the companies that ship hazardous materials to contribute more to improving Bend’s crossings. Bend has eight at-grade crossings where traffic must stop for trains to roll past.

Improving crossings gets pricey. Building an overpass at Reed Market Road was estimated to cost about $15 million in 2006 or $18 million in 2009. The entire Reed Market road improvement costs that much. So the overpass was rejected.

Railways are required to contribute 5 percent of the cost when at-grade crossings are eliminated. So, we suppose Bend could ask Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway to chip in more to pay for it all or ask Congress to require railways to pay more.

Bend might have better luck by sending Clinton and Russell to Las Vegas with $100.

Of course, they are right to be concerned. The new risk with the shale oil boom is the increase in oil cars. What do we know about the dangers?

There were three big oil car incidents in the United States in the last year. On Nov. 8, there was an accident with 630,000 gallons of oil in Aliceville, Ala., because of broken tracks. On Dec. 30, there was an accident with 475,000 gallons of oil when two trains collided near Casselton, N.D. On April 30, there was an accident with 25,000 gallons of oil spilled in Lynchburg, Va., when a train derailed.

The National Transportation Safety Board has not released the results of its investigation of the Lynchburg accident. But in the other two incidents, the accidents were caused by things other than problems with at-grade crossings.

For the trains to be safer, many things need to happen. Tracks need better inspections. The traffic on rail lines needs to be better monitored. The federal government is already preparing new regulations that would make the tank cars that haul fuel more safe. Some trains can be rerouted. More crude oil pipelines could be built and Clinton supports that, though as he said, that may just move the danger,

A narrow focus on Bend’s at-grade crossings is very good for Bend. It may not be where you can find the most value for the dollar to improve train safety.