Durbin Calls Together Local Mayors and Federal Transportation Officials to Discuss Rail Safety

CHICAGO - In response to safety concerns raised by the rapid increase of trains carrying crude oil and ethanol across the country, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) convened a meeting with mayors from the Chicago metropolitan area, Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Administrator Joe Szabo, and Surface Transportation Board (STB) Chairman Dan Elliott to hear their concerns about rail safety and an increase in rail delays.

“With one quarter of all U.S. freight traffic rolling through the Chicago area each day and roughly 40 trains carrying crude oil passing through Chicago each week, this community is uniquely impacted by rail safety issues.” Durbin said. “We need to better secure oil traveling in outdated and unsafe tank cars, increase the safety of the tracks over which these trains run, and ensure that local communities have the resources to respond to accidents if they occur. I am hopeful that today’s discussion will help DOT craft regulations that are sensitive to the safety needs we have here in the Chicago area. It’s my priority is to make sure that the rules and laws governing the safety of our rail system reflect the unique circumstances and viewpoints of Chicago and Illinois.”

On August 1st, after pressure from Durbin and area mayors, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) took its most significant action to date by releasing a draft rule to handle the issue of tank car safety comprehensively (see summary). The proposed rule’s public comment period is open until September 30, 2014.

There have been eight major derailments of oil trains since last year. The most severe occurred in Lac-Megantic, Quebec last July when a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded, wiping out dozens of buildings and killing 47 people. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada released a report on the incident yesterday, citing inadequate government oversight as one of the causing factors.

In Illinois, tank car weakness was exposed in two high profile derailments in Illinois when DOT-111s exploded after derailing. In 2009, one person was killed when a Canadian National (CN) train carrying ethanol derailed in Cherry Valley, Illinois. In 2011, 800 residents of Tiskilwa were evacuated from their homes after an ethanol train derailed and caused a massive explosion. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found the weakness of these cars added to the severity of both explosions.

Durbin helped secure several funding lines and policy changes in the fiscal year 2015 Senate Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations bill that will help address oil train safety. The bill includes funding for an increase of track inspections, more training for first responders, and calls on DOT to finalize their proposed rules quickly.

Durbin has also worked closely with area mayors on the issue of freight rail traffic and blocked rail crossings. He called for increased mitigation as part of CN’s controversial purchase of the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway (EJ&E). The deal was finalized in late 2008 and was placed under special STB oversight that expires early next year. In response to complaints from the communities along the EJ&E, Durbin has pushed the STB to ensure greater safety along the line. This push resulted in the STB’s first ever fine against CN for under-reporting the number and duration of blocked rail-highway crossings.

Several suburban communities in Illinois have contacted the STB with their concerns about increased rail traffic along the EJ&E. The Village of Barrington and City of Aurora in particular have been vigilant in promoting increased rail safety, especially for trains carrying crude oil and ethanol. These large unit trains, and other freight trains, are blocking crossings and increasing delays throughout the EJ&E corridor. Along the EJ&E rail line, freight trains have caused 5,267 instances of blocked road-rail crossings for ten minutes or more in the first quarter of 2014 – the highest number on record for that line. Last month, Durbin sent a letter to Dan Elliott of the STB asking the board to visit the Chicago area to see the traffic-related problems and to extend oversight to CN railway lines.