No one died when 30 tanker cars derailed last week in the Missoula rail yard, but without tighter safety regulations, a future train accident will prove deadly, Councilman Jordan Hess said Monday.
"Nothing particularly catastrophic happened here, but with railroad accidents and derailments, it's not if, but when. And I want to make sure that when never happens here," Hess said.
The matter was not on the agenda, but a couple of other council members agreed rail safety should be a priority topic in 2015. Councilman Jason Wiener said the topic is difficult, but he would be willing to work on it.
"It is, to be honest, an issue that has escaped solutions so far for me, but that's no reason not to take another whack at it," Wiener said.
The tankers were empty, and in his comments, Hess said Montana Rail Link has a good safety record.
However, the Ward 2 representative outlined recent instances of calamitous train wrecks involving other companies elsewhere in North America:
• Last year in Quebec, an explosion killed 47 people.
• In North Dakota, an accident in 2013 reminded the county emergency manager of an atomic bomb being dropped from World War II era videos.
• In Helena, a blast in 1989 blew out windows within a one mile radius during a night the wind chill hit 75 degrees below zero. Thousands of people had to leave their homes on that cold winter night, Hess said.
The explosion prompted a warning from the National Transportation and Safety Board against DOT111A cars, he said. Hess said those cars are used around the country to transport crude, gasoline and many other types of hazardous material, and crude transport is skyrocketing.
In 2013, the number of carloads shipped across the nation was 434,000, up from just 10,000 five years earlier, he said. The jump is a 4,000 percent increase, yet the equipment is poorly designed.
"These cars are woefully insufficient for the purpose of transporting dangerous materials," Hess said. "And it just terrifies me knowing that we have these going through our community every single day, and that last week on a Tuesday at 4 a.m., people in our community might not have woken up."
The issue is largely a federal one, he said, and Missoula should continue to press its congressional delegation and the Federal Railroad Administration for stronger safety regulations.
At the time of the derailment, Montana Rail Link said the tankers were designed with special features. MRL spokesman Jim Lewis earlier said the cars were rigged with double shelf couplers designed to prevent individual cars from detaching and potentially causing punctures.
“This safety feature of the tank cars worked properly, resulting in all 30 cars rolling on their side(s), as designed,” Lewis said in a written statement last week.
However, in recent years, rail yard neighbors have raised concerns about noise pollution, coal dust and its health hazards, and diesel fumes.
In his comments, Councilor Bryan Von Lossberg also thanked Hess for bringing up the topic. In the past, he said, the automobile industry wasn't held to standards that are now the norm.
"Look at the billions of dollars that were spent lobbying against seat belts and airbags in that industry," Von Lossberg said.
Just this year, the council adopted a resolution related to coal train traffic, and Von Lossberg suggested city staff provide a copy of it to the new director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
In other business, council members preliminarily adopted new bike licensing regulations; they will consider final adoption on Jan. 5.