Republican-Friendly Audience To McConnell: ‘Do Your Job’

Republican-Friendly Audience To McConnell: ‘Do Your Job’

IMAGE: U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) addresses reporters after the weekly Senate Republican caucus luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 

Analysis Forecasts Derailment Every Other Year If Oil Train Terminal Is Built

Analysis Forecasts Derailment Every Other Year If Oil Train Terminal Is Built

By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — A proposal to build the largest oil train terminal in the Pacific Northwest could result in a derailment every two years and an oil spill from a derailment once every 12, according to a draft analysis by a Washington state agency.

The document, released Tuesday, indicates that most fire departments along the oil trains’ rail route are not prepared for a spill or fire that could accompany a derailment. Out of the 12 departments that responded to the survey request, only one indicated its firefighters are trained and equipped for such an incident.

Further, only half the departments said they knew the locations of BNSF Railway’s specialized firefighting equipment closest to their jurisdiction. And while three-quarters of them reported having access to personal protective equipment, firefighting foam and foam applicators, only a quarter said they had access to oil spill containment booms.

The draft environmental impact statement from the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council said that BNSF would bring four oil trains a day to the Vancouver Energy facility at the Port of Vancouver, Wash., with the loaded trains mostly following the path of the Columbia River and the empty trains returning east via Tacoma, Auburn and Stampede Pass.

With those four daily trains, carrying 100 or more cars each of either light crude from North Dakota or diluted heavy crude from western Canada, the agency forecast “a derailment incident might occur once every two years with a loaded train, and once every 20 months with an empty train.”

The document noted, however, that not all derailments would result in a spill.

Tina Barbee, a spokeswoman for Vancouver Energy, said the company was reviewing the document and “will be able to address specific issues and respond to more detailed questions over the coming weeks.”

Courtney Wallace, a spokeswoman for BNSF, said the railroad had trained 800 firefighters in Washington state this year, and that included giving them the location of BNSF’s specialized firefighting resources.

She said BNSF has equipment and personnel staged in Everett, Seattle, Longview, Wishram, Pasco and Spokane.

“We will continue to work with first responders to ensure they have information about BNSF’s resources,” Wallace said.

©2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: SounderBruce via Flickr


Vermont Route Of Derailed Amtrak Train Exempt From Safety Mandate

Vermont Route Of Derailed Amtrak Train Exempt From Safety Mandate

By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Amtrak’s Vermonter derailed Monday on along a stretch of track that will be exempt from a Dec. 31 congressional deadline to install a system to prevent trains from colliding.

The Vermonter is among half a dozen Amtrak trains that operate over a group of smaller freight carriers that federal regulators will not require to implement positive train control, which otherwise will protect most Amtrak and commuter train lines.

Most commuter and freight railroads will not meet the year-end deadline, set in 2008, and lawmakers are showing an increasing willingness to give them more time. But as the law currently stands, 190 miles of the Vermonter route will not be protected by the new system, which can prevent trains from passing stop signals or approaching curves too fast.

Amtrak, the Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating Monday’s derailment of the southbound train near Northfield, Vt.

The train was bound from St. Albans, Vt., to Washington, D.C., and was carrying 98 passengers and four crew members. According to Amtrak, three crew members and four passengers were injured, with one crew member sustaining serious injuries.

Amtrak said the train derailed after striking a rock slide on the tracks, which are owned and maintained by the New England Central Railroad.

The New England Central and five other short-line railroads across several states are exempt from the positive train control requirement under a 2010 rule adopted by the Federal Railroad Administration.

As part of the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act, Congress directed the agency to decide what rail lines would need positive train control, with those routes carrying passengers and toxic chemicals getting first priority. But lawmakers gave the agency latitude to exclude rail lines it determined did not carry a significant amount of traffic.

The agency required the system on about 8,000 miles of passenger railroad. Together, the New England Central and five other Amtrak routes exempt from the requirement add up to 425 miles.

Matthew Lehner, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said those lines met the criteria for exemption.

“We continue to monitor these lines carefully and are always evaluating where additional actions are necessary to raise the bar on safety,” he said.

While the nation’s largest railroads are collectively spending billions of dollars to install positive train control, smaller carriers lack those resources.

The Vermonter route received a combined $120 million from President Barack Obama’s high-speed rail program in 2010 to improve train speeds in Massachusetts and Vermont.

Jo Strang, vice president for safety and regulatory policy at the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association, a trade group, said that smaller railroads have a different risk profile than larger carriers that run more trains.

For example, Strang said that smaller carriers with fewer trains could simply opt not to schedule any freight and passenger trains at the same time.

“That really eliminates any risk of a collision you could have,” she said. “There are other approaches you could take to make railroad operations safer.”

The NTSB has recommended positive train control for decades. After a collision between a commuter train and a freight train killed 25 people in Southern California in 2008, Congress approved the requirement and set a Dec. 31, 2015, deadline for railroads to install it.

The system has proved complex and costly and was held up in part by the Federal Communications Commission over the availability of wireless spectrum and the placement of communications towers on or near Native American heritage sites.

Virtually no rail carrier will meet the current deadline, and Congress is considering legislation that would extend it another three years.

But the May 12 derailment of an Amtrak train in northeast Philadelphia thrust the requirement back into the spotlight. Eight people were killed when a northbound train approached a 50-mph curve at 106 mph and jumped the tracks.

Positive train control could have prevented the train from exceeding the posted speed at the curve, but it was not installed on the track the train was using at that location.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said in a statement that positive train control was “essential to the safety of passengers and rail lines throughout our nation. If there’s a loophole in the system allowing some not to implement positive train control, then we need to close it, and fast.”

Photo: First responders work near the scene of an Amtrak passenger train derailment in Northfield, Vermont October 5, 2015. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Feds Warn Railroads To Comply With Oil Train Notification Requirement

Feds Warn Railroads To Comply With Oil Train Notification Requirement

By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Transportation has warned railroads that they must continue to notify states of large crude oil shipments after several states reported not getting updated information for as long as a year.

The department imposed the requirement in May 2014 following a series of fiery oil train derailments. It was designed to help state and local emergency officials assess their risk and training needs.

In spite of increased public concern about the derailments, railroads have opposed the public release of the oil train information by numerous states. Two companies sued Maryland in July 2014 to prevent the state from releasing the oil train data to McClatchy.

The rail industry fought to have the requirement dropped, and it appeared it got its wish three months ago in the department’s new oil train rule.

But facing backlash from lawmakers, firefighters and some states, the department announced it would continue to enforce the notification requirement indefinitely and take new steps to make it permanent.

There have been six major oil train derailments in North America this year, the most recent last week near Culbertson, Montana. While that derailment only resulted in a spill, others in Ontario, West Virginia, Illinois, and North Dakota involved fires, explosions, and evacuations.

In a letter to the companies Wednesday, Sarah Feinberg, the acting chief of the Federal Railroad Administration, told them that the notifications were “crucial” to first responders and state and local officials in developing emergency plans.

“We strongly support transparency and public notification to the fullest extent possible,” she wrote. “And we understand the public’s interest in knowing what is traveling through their communities.”

The letter was written after lawyers for Norfolk Southern and CSX used the new federal oil train rule to support their position in the Maryland court case that public release of the information creates security risks and exposes the companies to competitive harm. Feinberg added that the notifications must be updated “in a timely manner.”

States such as California, Washington, and Illinois have received updated reports regularly from BNSF Railway, the nation’s leading hauler of crude oil in trains. Most of it is light, sweet crude from North Dakota’s Bakken region and is produced by hydraulic fracturing of shale rock.

But to get to refineries on the East Coast, BNSF must hand off the trains to connecting railroads in Chicago or other points. Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania told McClatchy last month that they had received no updated oil train reports from CSX since June 2014.

The emergency order requires the railroads to report the weekly frequency of shipments of 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude, the routes they use, and the counties through which they pass. The railroads must update the reports when the volume increases or decreases by 25 percent.

Railroads found to be in violation of the requirement face a maximum penalty of $175,000 a day for each incident. The Federal Railroad Administration periodically audits railroads for compliance.

Though publicly available data on the exact volume of crude oil moved by railroads is difficult to come by, in an April earnings call, Norfolk Southern, the principal rival of CSX, reported that its crude oil volumes increased 34 percent from the first quarter of 2014 to the first quarter of 2015.

That’s not a reliable indicator of the increase in Bakken crude oil on any one route, but Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania did say they received updated oil train reports from Norfolk Southern in the past year.

Photo: A two-mile Canadian Pacific train loaded with oil tank cars idles on a track in Enderlin, North Dakota, November 14, 2014. REUTERS/Ernest Scheyder

Sen. Boxer, Nearing Retirement, ‘Focusing On The Big Ideas’

Sen. Boxer, Nearing Retirement, ‘Focusing On The Big Ideas’

By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Barbara Boxer and fellow California Democrat George Miller and their spouses used to spend weekends together, just a pair of couples taking a break from the pressures and strains of Capitol Hill.

But while Miller, who spent four decades in the House of Representatives before retiring last year, and the others relaxed over beers, Boxer would be sketching plans for the coming week’s political battles.

“She’s on the case all the time,” Miller said. “She’s always organizing.”

Indeed, even as the clock ticks down on Boxer’s 24-year Senate career — she announced in January she would not run for re-election next year — she’s not fading into the Senate’s ornate woodwork.

The stockbroker turned anti-Vietnam War activist turned Capitol Hill veteran is still scribbling away, making plans and developing strategies to finish some of the things she’s started.

Like many in Congress, she’s become expert at juggling priorities. Now hers have taken on the color of a last hurrah: aid for drought-stricken California, a bill to collect data on the shootings of civilians by police and of police by civilians, a program to help states transition toward cleaner energy, and legislation to guarantee that terminally ill patients can receive enough medication to ease their suffering.

“I’m focusing on the big ideas,” Boxer told reporters during a recent interview.

It’s become harder than ever, however, to get much done in Washington’s polarized environment. Next year won’t be any easier, as presidential and Senate elections cast long shadows over the congressional agenda. Boxer is leaving in January 2017, so she doesn’t have a whole lot of time.

The experience of a former colleague, Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine, offers a cautionary tale. Frustrated with Senate gridlock, Snowe retired in 2013 after three terms. She described her final months as “full steam ahead into a brick wall.”

“It opened up time for me,” said Snowe, a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “But on the other hand, it made me realize there was precious time remaining and I had a lot to do. It was a different kind of pressure.”

One burden Boxer no longer has to endure is raising the tens of millions of dollars it takes to run a statewide campaign in California. Voters have returned her to the Senate three times, even as her statewide approval rating has rarely topped 50 percent.

She intends to use the time she would otherwise need to devote to her own fundraising to helping other Democrats win back the Senate. She also plans to hit the trail on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s bid for the party’s presidential nomination.

“She is as outspoken as ever,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) said of Boxer. “But I think she feels a freedom in being relieved of her political responsibilities.”

The 74-year-old Boxer has spent almost half her life on Capitol Hill, most of that time in the Senate. But her first decade was in the House, where she cemented her image as an unwavering tribune for liberal causes, the possessor of a tart wit and a combat-ready opponent during floor debates.

“The left will dearly miss her,” said Bill Whalen, a former chief speechwriter for former California Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, “and Republicans will not.”

She is best known, perhaps, for the march of women House members that she led to the Senate in 1991 to demand that the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee hold hearings on sexual harassment allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

Once a member of the Senate herself after the 1992 “Year of the Woman election” — four entered the Senate and 24 joined the House — Boxer’s style didn’t always win over her colleagues or translate into legislative accomplishments.

Former Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas, no shrinking violet himself when it came to party warfare, once called her “the most partisan senator I’ve ever known.”

“There’s no doubt that she’s fiercely partisan,” said Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) who also served with Boxer in the House. “But she has the respect of all of us because her positions are well thought out and principled.”

While Boxer’s colleagues became accustomed to her fiery speeches on the Senate floor, in committee hearings and at news conferences, her views and personality grated on rank-and-file Republicans, said Whalen, now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

“She’s not the only outraged liberal on Capitol Hill,” he said, “but she excels at the performance art of liberal outrage.”

Among Boxer’s signature issues, her successes include blocking attempts to erode abortion rights; ensuring equal treatment for women in the workplace and the military; and establishing new safeguards for workers, consumers and the environment.

One major issue has eluded her, though. She’ll likely leave the Senate without achieving legislation to address climate change.

Boxer’s reputation as a party firebrand sometimes belies her pragmatism. Earlier this year, she co-sponsored a highway funding bill with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Robert Smith, a political science professor at San Francisco State University, said Boxer has not moderated her views so much as become more of a negotiator since assuming greater responsibilities. She chaired the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for seven years.

Moreover, there might not be an odder couple in the chamber, as far as ideological opposites who have figured out how to work together, than Boxer and her deeply conservative colleague on the committee, Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma.

He took over the committee in January when Republicans assumed control of the Senate. A longstanding skeptic of the science behind climate change, Inhofe brought a snowball onto the Senate floor earlier this year as evidence that global warming was a hoax. Boxer has been championing the issue for years.

“We see the world completely differently,” she said of Inhofe. “He is against all the landmark (environmental) laws, and I want to make them stronger.”

“Yet we can still maintain a genuine friendship,” Inhofe said. “A lot of people can’t do that, so that’s kind of unique between the two of us.”

Boxer said she feels confident that when she does finally depart 18 months from now, her concerns will be in good hands: Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey on civil rights, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York on women’s equality, Edward Markey of Massachusetts on the environment, Sherrod Brown of Ohio on workers’ rights and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts on consumer protection.

“I feel good,” Boxer said. “I think if you look at a variety of issues I’ve focused on, one of the reasons that I, frankly, could move on was because of these fabulous people that are here, now, in the caucus.”

Still, as Miller, her longtime friend and political ally, noted: “She’s not going to be good at sitting still. I suspect that she’ll pick up the battle in another venue.”

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Senate Democrats via Flick

Amid Capitol Hill Opposition, High-Speed Rail Gets Second Wind

Amid Capitol Hill Opposition, High-Speed Rail Gets Second Wind

By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Is President Barack Obama’s vision for high-speed rail dead? If so, you couldn’t tell it from a group of rail supporters gathered in the nation’s capital this week.

And for the first time, they can point to tangible progress. California’s $68 billion system broke ground in January. Efforts are under way to bring high-speed rail projects to Texas, Florida, Minnesota, and North Carolina.

Republicans in Congress have cut off additional funding for the president’s program, and the California project in particular still has its skeptics, in both parties. But supporters say it’s just the beginning of a decades-long effort to improve passenger rail service throughout the country.

Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, noted that the Golden Gate Bridge generated 2,300 lawsuits against the project when it was first proposed. The California rail project, he said, has so far triggered only four.

Critics have called it a train to nowhere. But Richard said people said that initially about San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit.

“Our project has been controversial,” he told a conference of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association. “But it’s always good to remind ourselves that these things are never, ever easy.”

Some of the project’s most vocal critics are prominent members of Congress from California’s Central Valley, where construction is under way on the first segment of track. Among them: Republican Representatives Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, and Jeff Denham.

Denham, chairman of the House rail subcommittee, called the project “a failure ten years in the making” when it broke ground in Fresno in January.

“It’s hard to celebrate breaking ground on what is likely to become abandoned pieces of track that never connect to a usable segment,” Denham said at the time.

Speaking to project supporters on Tuesday, Representative Jim Costa, a California Democrat, said that his Republican colleagues from California supported high-speed rail when they were members of the state legislature but turned against it when they were elected to Congress.

“People can always find a reason to be against something,” he said.

The California project does have the backing of some Republicans. Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin stood with Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, at the January groundbreaking.

But not all Democrats are on board. California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, who has his eye on the governor’s mansion, dropped his support for the project. State Attorney General Kamala Harris, who’s running for the U.S. Senate next year, hasn’t publicly endorsed it.

But other states with Republican governors and legislatures are taking a serious look at their own high-speed rail plans.

North Carolina, for example, is two years away from completing a $520 million upgrade for passenger trains that connect three of the state’s largest population centers: Charlotte, Greensboro, and Raleigh. Although it won’t meet the definition of high-speed rail, that could be coming.

“It’s for the future,” said Paul Worley, director of the rail division at the North Carolina Department of Transportation, “but it’s also for the present, too.”

North Carolina is studying a 220 mph rail link from Charlotte to Atlanta, one that would eventually connect to Washington, where it would meet Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

Many critics say the Northeast Corridor should get the investment in high-speed rail first because of its population density. But Richard of the California High-Speed Rail Authority said that his state has its own version of the Northeast Corridor, Los Angeles to San Francisco, one of the most congested short-haul air routes in the country. He said he hoped to connect the two cities within 15 years.

The project still needs a hefty dose of private capital for completion. But Richard said he was optimistic that investors would step up. The state’s population is growing, he said, and the rail system is an effective way to move it.

“We’re building something in California that’s going to last for generations,” he said.

Photo: California High-Speed Railway Authority via Facebook

Transit Proposals In Congress Threaten Projects, Jobs, Critics Say

Transit Proposals In Congress Threaten Projects, Jobs, Critics Say

By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Rail and bus systems across the country could lose nearly half their funding under two proposals in Congress to end federal grants for transit projects.

The legislation, sponsored by Republican Representatives Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Mark Sanford of South Carolina, also could affect more than 750 companies in 39 states that produce rail and bus transit components, including manufacturers in those two states.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, eliminating federal transit funding would put 66 projects at risk. They include light rail and streetcar projects in Charlotte, N.C.; commuter rail in Fort Worth, Texas; and bus rapid transit in Fresno, California.

Transit advocates are pushing lawmakers to continue federal funding for these projects as part of a long-term transportation bill Congress needs to pass this year.

The American Public Transportation Association reported last month that public transit ridership hit 10.8 billion trips last year, the largest in nearly six decades. The group projects that the Sanford and Massie bills would result in a 43 percent reduction in transit systems’ capital funds.

While some conservatives oppose federal funding for transit because of the perception that it benefits only urban areas, Michael Melaniphy, the American Public Transportation Association’s president and CEO, said that rural areas depend on transit systems and transit manufacturing jobs.

“Without federal investment, there will be negative impacts in towns small and large,” he said.

One of those towns could be Mount Pleasant, S.C., in Sanford’s district, where Hubner, a German company, announced plans in December to expand its manufacturing plant, adding 50 jobs. The plant builds parts for commuter trains, light rail vehicles, and buses.

Proterra Inc., an electric bus manufacturer in Greenville, S.C., has supplied buses to transit systems in Seattle; Worcester, Mass.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville’s system ordered five Proterra buses in February after receiving a $3.3 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration.

Kentucky also has companies that supply transit systems. Invensys Rail, a subsidiary of Siemens, a German multinational conglomerate, builds signal systems for commuter rail and transit systems and employs more than 500 people in the state.

Since the Reagan administration, 20 percent of the federal Highway Trust Fund has been dedicated to mass transit, or about ten billion dollars a year.

In recent years, however, the highway fund has not been able to cover the cost of annual transportation spending because it relies on a per-gallon federal gasoline tax that Congress hasn’t changed since the Clinton administration.

Rather than raise the tax, currently 18.4 cents a gallon on gasoline and 24.4 cents a gallon on diesel fuel, the Sanford and Massie bills would eliminate or phase out the transit funding and redirect it to highways. The Sanford bill would phase out the funds over five years.

“The bill removes mass transit from the trust fund over a five-year period in order to give mass transit systems time to find and develop dedicated funding sources,” Sanford said in a statement.

While the idea is popular in conservative circles, Sanford and Massie will not have the support of the Republican chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, of which they’re members.

Representative Bill Shuster (R-PA), has publicly said he does not support ending federal support for transit. Nor does Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, who’s testified on Capitol Hill recently in favor of more transit funding.

  • Charlotte, N.C. — CityLYNX Gold Line streetcar Phase 2; Blue Line light rail extension
  • Durham, N.C. — Durham-Orange LRT (light rail) project
  • Fort Worth, Texas — TEX Rail commuter rail
  • Sacramento, Calif. — Sacramento downtown riverfront streetcar
  • Fresno, Calif. — FAX (Fresno Area Express) Blackstone, Kings Canyon bus rapid transit
  • Tacoma, Wash. — Tacoma Link light rail expansion

Photo: Richard Gallagher via Flickr

Derailments Spur Push For Safer Railroad Oil-Tank Cars

Derailments Spur Push For Safer Railroad Oil-Tank Cars

By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — While some government and industry officials have repeatedly said there’s no silver bullet to improve the safety of oil trains, a persistent problem runs through every new derailment: the tank cars.

Oil industry groups maintain that railroads should do a better job of maintaining track to prevent derailments, while the rail industry has called for tank cars that are better equipped to survive accidents.

Although there’s almost universal consensus that improvements are required in both areas, there’s one key difference.

Railroads have already spent heavily in recent years to improve their track for all kinds of freight and have pledged to spend more. Meanwhile, the companies that own and lease tank cars for transporting oil and other flammable liquids have been waiting for regulators to approve a better design.

The railroad industry petitioned the U.S. Department of Transportation in March 2011 for a more robust tank-car design. Rather than wait for an answer, the industry began its own upgrades later that year. But several recent derailments involving different types of crude oil have suggested that those cars don’t perform significantly better than those they replaced.

And unlike the controversy that surrounds other proposed solutions or doubts about their effectiveness, tank-car upgrades have the support of lawmakers, regulators, mayors, governors, community, and industry groups, and the National Transportation Safety Board.

“We certainly have been distracted from doing what is the most obvious safety improvement: the cars,” said Peter Goelz, former managing director of the NTSB.

The White House Office of Management and Budget is reviewing proposals that include an improved tank-car design. But the new rules aren’t scheduled to be published until May, frustrating many who’ve pushed for better tank cars for years.

In January, the NTSB included tank cars on its “Most Wanted List” of safety improvements.

For more than two decades, the NTSB has called for improving the most common type of tank car, the DOT-111. But those calls were largely ignored until railroads started carrying significantly larger volumes of domestically produced crude oil and ethanol.

The minimally reinforced cars were vulnerable to punctures in derailments, spilling their contents, which quickly caught fire. Such fires could compromise other cars by heating their contents to the point where they burst through the tank walls with explosive force.

“Once you get a leak and fire, that can spread to other cars,” said Greg Saxton, chief engineer for the Greenbrier Companies, which is building a tank car to tougher standards. “That’s the number one thing we want to do. We don’t want to have a leak.”

After a July 2013 oil train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killed 47 people, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board found that none of the cars in that incident was equipped with thermal protection. The cars that sustained only minor impact damage ripped open after fire exposure, violently releasing their pressurized contents as large fireballs.

The rail industry made a few modifications to DOT-111 cars manufactured since 2011, including shields that protected the bottom half of each end of the car and more reinforcement for valves and outlets. But an outer steel jacket to provide extra puncture resistance and insulation to protect the car’s contents from fire exposure were optional.

In recent derailments in West Virginia, Illinois, and Ontario, the newer cars, called CPC-1232s, lacked those extra safeguards.

“Do we need a new standard for tank cars? Absolutely,” said Ed Hamberger, president and chief executive of the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s principal advocacy group.

Those existing cars could be retrofitted with jackets and thermal insulation until new ones are built. But even those improvements are waiting for approval by the White House.

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), and three Democratic co-sponsors — Patty Murray of Washington state, Dianne Feinstein of California, and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin — introduced a bill last week that would require an immediate ban on crude oil shipments in DOT-111 and non-jacketed CPC-1232 tank cars. It also would mandate that new cars meet a standard that exceeds any current requirement.

“No one wants to pull the trigger and say they should be removed,” Cantwell said in an interview. “We can’t wait to see a more aggressive plan.”

The redesigned tank car might look like the one the Canadian government proposed this month. It includes full-height shields on both ends, thermal insulation, and an outer jacket.

Last year, railroads agreed to limit oil train speeds to 40 mph in some densely populated areas and 50 mph everywhere else. But six of the most recent derailments cast doubt on the effectiveness of reducing speeds as a mitigation measure.

All the trains in the four most recent U.S. derailments that resulted in fires or spills were going under 40 mph. Three were traveling at less than 25 mph and one at just nine mph. In the two most recent Canadian wrecks, the trains were traveling at 38 and 43 mph.

The Federal Railroad Administration wants railroads to install electronic braking systems on trains that carry crude oil. But the industry opposes new braking requirements, and they wouldn’t address the vulnerabilities of tank cars to punctures and fire exposure.

Even those who support an “all of the above” approach to dealing with the problem say tank-car improvements are a crucial step.

“It’s unfortunate to have the NTSB investigating the same accident over and over again,” said Jim Hall, a former NTSB chairman. “We’re overdue in addressing this issue with the DOT-111.”

Photo: blake.thornberry via Flickr

In California, A ‘Golden’ Political Opportunity Carries Risks

In California, A ‘Golden’ Political Opportunity Carries Risks

By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — To some of the more politically ambitious members of the U.S. House of Representatives from California, it’s a long-awaited opportunity.

For the first time in more than two decades, an open contest for a U.S. Senate seat from the Golden State beckons next year.

It’s also no small challenge, and one, if taken, could potentially upset an otherwise secure political perch on Capitol Hill.

Only a few House members have the name recognition and star power needed to run in such a geographically and demographically diverse state, with some of the country’s most expensive media markets. Still, some lawmakers could be formidable competitors, depending on the field of candidates, some political observers say.

At least four House members told McClatchy that they’re seriously thinking about running to succeed retiring Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat who served five terms in the House and will have completed 24 years in the Senate by the end of next year.

They are Reps. Adam Schiff, Loretta Sanchez and Xavier Becerra from Southern California, and John Garamendi from the north. All are Democrats. Republicans are viewed at this point as underdogs, given their difficulties winning statewide, particularly in a presidential year when the higher turnout favors the Democrats.

“I think they’re all plausible, viable candidates,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican political consultant who worked for former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris is the only official candidate so far. Environmental activist and hedge fund manager Tom Steyer withdrew his name from consideration, while former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has yet to make his intentions official.

Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, another name that’s been in the mix, has said it’s unlikely that she would run.

The presence of high-profile candidates in the race could put House members at a major disadvantage, said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University and a congressional scholar at the center-left Brookings Institution.

“They’re starting out with a tremendous leg up compared to a House member from any of these districts,” she said. “It’s an uneven playing field.”

Next year’s Senate race is widely expected to break records for campaign spending, and House members considering a run know that’s a high bar.

“It’s an uphill battle for anyone in the House to run,” said Rep. Doris Matsui, a Sacramento Democrat who succeeded her late husband, Rep. Robert Matsui. He served in the House for more than two decades and considered a Senate run in 1992, but ultimately declined.

Bill Carrick, a veteran political strategist who’s worked for California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, among others, said that a serious contender would need to raise $20 million or more.

“It’s going to take a lot of dough,” he said.

That’s true for anyone seeking a Senate seat from California. Harris will be under pressure to meet the high expectations that comes with being the early favorite, Stutzman said.

“She better raise more money than those sitting members of Congress,” he said.

Schiff, vice chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has about $2 million in unspent campaign funds, according to federal filings. Becerra, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, has $1.2 million. Sanchez and Garamendi each have less than $400,000.

Schiff is Jewish and Becerra is Latino, which could appeal to two key constituencies. Both represent Los Angeles-area districts rich in potential donors.

Becerra said a Senate run would give him the chance to make a bigger impact on the state.

“This doesn’t open up very often,” he said.

But it comes at the risk of losing a safe seat and a position in the leadership of his party should Democrats regain the majority, a long shot next year, given that Democrats would need to gain 30 seats. Becerra, first elected in 1992, won his last three elections by more than 70 percent in a safe Latino congressional district.

Schiff said he enjoys his role on the Intelligence Committee and would lead the panel should the House flip. He won his last two elections with more than 70 percent of the vote. But an open Senate seat is tempting for him, and many of his colleagues.

Many members of the House “look in the mirror every day and see a senator,” he said.

Though crossing to the other chamber may be more difficult for a House member from California than it would be in a less populous state, it’s not impossible. Former Republican President Richard Nixon served two House terms before moving to the Senate in 1950. John Tunney, a three-term House Democrat, was elected to the Senate in 1970.

In 1992, two simultaneous Senate vacancies at once and a banner year for female candidates, set a path for the elections of Boxer and Feinstein.

Feinstein had a statewide profile as a former mayor of San Francisco, as well as an unsuccessful statewide run for governor in 1990. Boxer rose to prominence in the House through her push for the Senate Judiciary Committee to investigate sexual harassment allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

Boxer was hardly the front-runner when she entered the race, Carrick said, but she “ran a really good campaign. She took off.”

Holding statewide office doesn’t hurt. Garamendi, now in his fourth term in the House, was previously elected as California’s lieutenant governor and insurance commissioner.

“That ought to count for something,” he said.

But Garamendi acknowledges that the electorate has changed in the years since he last ran statewide. And it could prove difficult to reintroduce himself to voters with less than $200,000 in campaign funds, according to federal filings.

Much has changed since the last California Senate race. There’s the Internet and social media. Voters who decline to state a party preference can participate in the primary, and the top two candidates in the primary move to the general, and they could be from the same party.

Latino voters are now more than a quarter of California’s electorate, the highest proportion in any state. That could boost candidates such as Becerra and Sanchez.

House members eyeing the Senate race are not necessarily in a big hurry to announce.

“There’s plenty of time to take a look at it,” Sanchez said. “Meanwhile, I have great job.”

Personal factors also weigh heavily on any candidate.

Matsui said her late husband believed he understood the issues and had the skill set, as well as the fundraising capabilities it would take to win. But when his father was diagnosed with lung cancer, he decided the timing wasn’t right.

“He felt he could not focus on a race like that,” she said. “That is why he removed himself from the race.”

Family could be a decisive factor for any Senate hopeful.

“The four most important votes,” Becerra said, “are from my wife and three daughters.”

Photo: Amy The Nurse via Flickr

U.S. Chamber Election Spending At Odds With Immigration Push

U.S. Chamber Election Spending At Odds With Immigration Push

By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau (MCT)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Chamber of Commerce publicly identifies immigration as one of its top issues, and has pledged to support candidates who favor an overhaul that includes an earned path to citizenship for those here illegally.

However, the business group’s pattern of endorsements and outside spending in this year’s elections suggests that immigration may not be as important as advertised.

Immigration is a top concern for California’s agriculture and technology sectors, as well as its university system. These industries rely on a range of high- and low-skilled workers from foreign countries. Their advocacy groups visit Washington frequently to lobby members of Congress on the issue.

The chamber’s spending numbers show an effort focused on increasing the Republican majority in the House of Representatives and giving Republicans a majority in the Senate. In fact, the chamber has spent millions to defeat lawmakers who support its position on immigration, though the candidates may disagree with the chamber on other business-related issues.

“There are some issues that the business community would never, ever dream of supporting a candidate with whom they disagree,” said Dan Schnur, executive director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “Immigration isn’t one of them.”

California business groups declined to criticize the U.S. chamber on the record. But the chamber is pumping $28 million into races nationwide this year, according to federal data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The funds are supporting few candidates who favor an immigration solution that many California business groups are pushing for.

On its website, the U.S. chamber “supports immigration reform because America cannot compete and win in a global economy without attracting and retaining the world’s most talented and hardest workers.”

Earlier this year, chamber President and CEO Tom Donohue said the group would “pull out all the stops” to get an immigration bill through Congress.

“We’re determined to make 2014 the year that immigration reform is finally enacted,” he said in January at the group’s State of American Business address in Washington.

But weeks away from the November election, that goal is no closer than it was in January.

Blair Latoff Holmes, a chamber spokeswoman, identified taxes, regulation and trade as other issues of importance to the group.

“We are not a single-issue organization,” she said.

Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a left-leaning government watchdog group that tracks the chamber’s activities, said the business group’s immigration views are closer to the Democratic Party’s. Yet the chamber overwhelmingly backs Republicans because the party is friendlier on other issues, including taxes, regulation and the environment, he said.

“Their concern with immigration reform is very dramatically outweighed by the rest of the corporate agenda they’re pushing,” he said.

In California’s competitive 7th Congressional District, the chamber has spent a combined $600,000 this year to unseat Rep. Ami Bera, a freshman Democrat who supports the kind of immigration legislation the chamber favors. Bera’s opponent, former Republican Rep. Doug Ose, has said that he opposes an earned path to citizenship.

The country’s leading political prognosticators have rated the race as a “toss-up.”

In California’s nearby 4th District, Rep. Tom McClintock, a Republican who identifies with the Tea Party, opposes the chamber’s favored approach to immigration policy. He also voted for last year’s government shutdown and voted against the farm bill this year.

But the group generally supports any lawmaker who scores over 70 on its report card, and McClintock has a lifetime score of 78. The chamber endorsed him in March.

“Your record of support on pro-business issues earned this endorsement,” Donohue wrote in a letter to McClintock.

McClintock faces Art Moore, a moderate Republican, in November as the result of California’s unique top-two primary system.

The chamber has endorsed a handful of Democrats this year, including Rep. Scott Peters of San Diego. It has also thrown its weight behind Rep. David Valadao, one of only a handful of Republicans who support an immigration bill with a path to citizenship.

Valadao, a freshman whose heavily agricultural Central Valley district is also 70 percent Latino, has received $550,000 in chamber spending to fend off a challenge from Amanda Renteria, a former adviser to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

Holmes, the chamber spokeswoman, said maintaining a pro-business majority in the House and making gains in the Senate was the group’s focus.

“There are several crucial House races in California where there is a clear contrast between candidates who couldn’t be further apart on job-creating issues,” she said. “The same is true in the Senate, where we have engaged in more than a dozen races.”

The chamber scores members of Congress on how they vote on its top policy priorities. It scored the U.S. Senate on the May 2013 vote on an immigration bill that included a path to citizenship, which passed 68-32. All 52 Democrats voted aye, along with 14 Republicans and two independents.

But in the 2012 and 2014 elections, the chamber has spent heavily, though not always successfully, to defeat 17 of those erstwhile Senate allies on immigration.

According to federal data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, the group has also spent close to $7 million this year to defeat Democrats, including four who voted for the Senate immigration bill, compared with the $1 million it spent to defeat tea party candidates in Republican primaries.

“On immigration,” said Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group that favors a path to citizenship, “it is so clear that the business wing of the Republican party has gotten their ass kicked by the Tea Party wing.”

Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Mark Udall of Colorado, all Democrats who voted for the Senate bill, have been targeted for defeat by the chamber.

In another three open-seat Senate races in Iowa, Montana and West Virginia, the chamber’s spending favors a candidate whose immigration views do not match its own.

Schnur, a Republican who worked for Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Gov. Pete Wilson of California, said immigration foes may dig in even deeper if Republicans make gains in Congress. Then, he said, pro-immigration business groups may have to become more aggressively involved in recruiting and funding like-minded candidates.

“If you’re a congressional candidate, and the message you hear is ‘we want you to support immigration reform but we’ll give you money if you don’t,’ ” he said, “that might not have a tremendous motivating effect.”

Photo: Anuska Sampedro via Flickr

Weak Safety Culture’ Faulted In Fatal Quebec Train Derailment, Fire

Weak Safety Culture’ Faulted In Fatal Quebec Train Derailment, Fire

By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau

CHICAGO — Canadian safety investigators on Tuesday blamed a “weak safety culture” and inadequate government oversight for a crude oil train derailment last year in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people.

In its nearly 200-page report, issued more than 13 months after the deadly crash, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board identified 18 contributing factors.

“Take any one of them out of the equation,” said Wendy Tadros, the board’s chairman, “and the accident may not have happened.”

Among other factors, the investigation found that the train’s sole engineer failed to apply a sufficient number of handbrakes after parking the train on a descending grade several miles from Lac-Megantic, and leaving it unattended for the night.

The engineer applied handbrakes to the train’s five locomotives and two other cars, but investigators concluded that he did not set handbrakes on any of the train’s 72 tank cars loaded with 2 million gallons of Bakken crude oil.

Investigators said the engineer should have set at least 17 handbrakes. Instead, he relied on another braking system in the lead locomotive to hold the train in place. But after local residents reported a fire on the locomotive later that night, firefighters shut the locomotive off, following instructions given by another railroad employee.

Not long after, the train began its runaway descent, reaching a top speed of 65 mph. The train derailed in the center of Lac-Megantic at a point where the maximum allowable speed was 15 mph.

Investigators said that the derailment caused 59 of the 63 tank cars that derailed to puncture, releasing 1.6 million gallons of flammable crude oil into the town, much of which burned. In addition to the 47 fatalities, 2,000 people were evacuated, and 40 buildings and 53 vehicles were destroyed.

The train’s engineer and two other railroad employees are set to go on trial next month. But Tadros noted that the investigation revealed “more than handbrakes, or what the engineer did or didn’t do.”

“Experience has taught us that even the most well-trained and motivated employees make mistakes,” she said.

The Quebec derailment set in motion regulatory changes on both sides of the border to improve the safety of trains carrying crude oil. Sixteen major derailments involving either crude oil or ethanol have occurred since 2006, according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.

Tadros said the railroad relied on its employees to follow the rules and that regulators relied on the railroads to enforce their own rules. But she said that a complex system requires more attention to safety.

“It’s not enough for a company to have a safety management system on paper,” she said. “It has to work.”

AFP Photo/Bertrand Guay

Interested in world news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

Silicon Valley Is Becoming Bigger Player In Washington

Silicon Valley Is Becoming Bigger Player In Washington

By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — California’s technology sector has booted up a bigger presence in politics in recent years, a shift for an industry that began on the outside but is fast becoming an inside player.
Silicon Valley still has some catching up to do. Tech firms are still not as big a force as Wall Street banks or health care companies. But unlike many sectors that are cutting back on such efforts, Big Tech is expanding its participation in politics, whether that’s support for particular candidates or lobbying on issues important to the industry.

“They’re no longer the little guys trying to make it,” said Paul Goodman, an attorney with the Greenlining Institute, a social justice advocacy organization in Berkeley, Calif.

California-based companies such as Apple, Google, Yahoo, and Facebook have long grown out of the dorm rooms and garages where they were founded and have since become powerful corporations with policy priorities.

“They understand how the political game in D.C. is played,” said Dave Levinthal, who tracks tech sector politics and lobbying for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan investigative research group in Washington, “and they’re playing it at a high level.”

Not surprisingly, though, technology companies are accustomed to changing at a faster pace than the way usual Washington usually operates.

“There’s deep disappointment that Washington, D.C., doesn’t run at the same speed as business,” said Steve Wright, a senior vice president at the San Jose-based Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which has 400 member companies.

The industry has four basic priorities, Wright said: Immigration reform, corporate tax reform, cyber security, and net neutrality. Government surveillance, as revealed by the Edward Snowden-NSA scandal is also a concern, given the industry’s international footprint.

Though the tech sector has a left-leaning reputation, the industry has been more pretty even-handed in its political contributions. The same sector that’s been a staunch supporter of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader and a San Francisco liberal, is also a big backer of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a Bakersfield conservative who recently ascended to House majority leader.

Excluding presidential candidates, since 2001, the technology sector has given a total of $365 million to Democrats and $312 million to Republicans, according to an analysis of campaign data by MapLight, a nonpartisan organization that tracks money’s influence on politics.

“The bottom line for them is their bottom line,” Levinthal said. “They want someone, first and foremost, who’s an advocate for their issues.”

Case in point: President Barack Obama.

The success of Obama’s first presidential campaign was due, in no small part, to his early backing in 2007 by Silicon Valley. He is by far the biggest benefactor of tech sector money than any other current officeholder, according to the MapLight analysis.

MapLight showed that Obama has received more than $16.5 million from technology companies, their employees, and political action committees since 2004.

The next four officeholders who ran, unsuccessfully, for president, in the same time frame only collected half of Obama’s haul, including Secretary of State John Kerry; former Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY); Sen. John McCain (R-AZ); and former Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX).

Silicon Valley has some Ayn Rand fans, as well. Paul, a libertarian who mounted multiple bids for the presidency, collected more than $1.4 million from tech sector donors.

“The industry is known for liking iconoclasts,” said Sarah Bryner, research director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that compiles data on campaign spending and lobbying.

According to the group’s numbers, six of the top 10 biggest spenders on lobbying for tech sector interests in 2013 were California-based companies: Google, Oracle, Hewlett-Packard, Facebook, Intel, and Apple. Goodman said they are building a presence in Washington for a reason.

“They don’t do anything without a long-term goal in mind,” he said. “They’re thinking very far ahead.”

Take immigration. Technology companies have been clamoring for a comprehensive immigration bill to increase the number of work visas for the foreign-born talent they need, but have been frustrated by Washington gridlock.

The recent surprise primary upset of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), was considered by some observers to be a blow to those efforts. His successor, McCarthy, was thought to be less receptive to tech-favored legislation.

Not so, according to Wright, of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.

He said that McCarthy held a conference call last week with several tech industry CEOs. Though he hails from the agriculture-dominated Central Valley, the new House majority leader has become a frequent visitor to Silicon Valley. Wright said McCarthy sends other Republican lawmakers there, as well, to hear the industry’s perspective.

“He clearly gets it,” Wright said.

AFP Photo/Kimihiro Hoshino

Interested in U.S. politics? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

Congress OKs Highway Funding Fix At Last Minute, But Problem Isn’t Solved

Congress OKs Highway Funding Fix At Last Minute, But Problem Isn’t Solved

By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Hours before the federal government was set to reduce payments to states for road and bridge projects, Congress approved a temporary fix Thursday that would maintain funding through the middle of next year.

But in some ways, the damage already had been done.

States were bracing for a drop in payments during the height of construction season. And Congress’ inability to agree on a long-term funding solution has wreaked havoc on state transportation departments, which plan their projects years, not months, in advance.

“We’ve got a short-term fix,” said David Parkhurst, staff director and general counsel for the National Governors Association’s Office of Federal Relations, “but the long-term challenges remain.”

And given the broader paralysis in Washington on a whole range of issues, many observers worry that Congress will just run out the clock again.

“My fear is it will still be a politically intractable issue next year,” said James Burnley, transportation secretary during the Reagan administration. “That’s incredibly disruptive to states.”

Lawmakers in the Senate and the House of Representatives had plenty of warnings. They’d known for two years that the current transportation bill, MAP-21, would expire at the end of September. They’d known for months that the federal highway trust fund would go broke by summer’s end.

They’d known for a month that the Department of Transportation was prepared to ration payments to states beginning Friday.

Yet state transportation departments, business groups, and construction and engineering companies watched for weeks as the House and Senate dueled over whether the highway fund patch would end in December or next May, or what budgetary offsets it would include or not include.

“That’s not a good sign for coming together on long-term comprehensive legislation,” said Joshua Schank, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington policy group.

On Tuesday, the Senate approved an $8 billion plan on a vote of 79-18 to bolster the highway fund through December, with the intent of hammering out longer-term legislation after the November elections.

But Thursday, the House voted 272-150 to send its $11 billion, 10-month extension to the Senate. Late in the day, with time running out, the Senate voted 81-13 for a bill that pushes the tough choices into the next Congress.

Schank said that lawmakers are avoiding the elephant in the room.

“They might as well fight over a gas tax,” he said.

The federal taxes that support the highway trust fund — 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel — have not been raised since 1993, nor were they indexed to inflation. The crisis began six years ago, when Congress began tapping general revenues to maintain the program. It’s taken more than $50 billion to keep the fund solvent, and the hole gets deeper every year.

Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Trucking Associations, have pushed for a gax tax increase. Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT), and Bob Corker (R-TN), proposed raising it by 12 cents to restore its purchasing power.

But lawmakers in both parties are reluctant to raise taxes, especially during an election year. President Barack Obama has not endorsed that approach, either. He has pitched a plan to close corporate tax loopholes to supplement the highway fund, but that’s only a one-time source of revenue, not a permanent cure.

“You could scotch tape, year after year, various sources of revenue and accounting games,” Burnley said. “But that’s no way to manage your infrastructure.”

AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards

Interested in national news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

Federal Fines For Crude Oil Loaded On Trains Don’t Address Tank Car Safety

Federal Fines For Crude Oil Loaded On Trains Don’t Address Tank Car Safety

By  Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Department of Transportation announced fines Tuesday for three oil companies for not properly classifying the crude oil it loaded into rail cars.

However, even if the oil had been properly labeled as more dangerous, it could still have been loaded into the same rail cars with a long history of catastrophic failures in accidents, because current federal regulations allow it.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration began investigating whether companies were properly labeling crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale region last August, a month after a fiery derailment killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

That incident and subsequent derailments have led federal regulators to conclude that Bakken shale oil is more volatile than other kinds and should be handled with special care.

Tuesday’s fines are the first from that effort, and Hess, Whiting Petroleum and Marathon Oil will pay a combined $93,000 in civil penalties.

“The fines we are proposing today should send a message to everyone involved in the shipment of crude oil,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “You must test and classify this material properly if you want to use our transportation system to ship it.”

But oil producers, rail companies and tank-car manufacturers are still waiting on the transportation department to issue new standards for tank cars. The DOT-111A cars involved in derailments in Quebec, Alabama and North Dakota lacked safety protections that could have made those accidents less severe, including thicker shells and steel plates to prevent punctures.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which has no enforcement power, has recommended improvements to the DOT-111 cars since 1991, and for tank cars carrying hazardous materials generally since the early 1970s.

Tank cars carrying flammable and toxic gases were retrofitted in the 1980s, but that was well before railroads began moving large volumes of crude oil and ethanol, a business that has only developed in the past decade or so.

Railroads themselves don’t own most tank cars; rather, shippers lease them from tank car manufacturers and financial institutions.

Since 2011, tank-car manufacturers have voluntarily built DOT-111A cars to a higher standard, with steel shields to help prevent punctures on the vulnerable ends, or heads, of tank cars, and stronger fittings where the cars are loaded and unloaded.

Jeannie Shiffer, a spokeswoman for the pipeline and hazardous materials regulator, which is responsible for writing tank car standards, said that proper classification of hazardous materials was “the beginning of the process.”

As the agency moves forward on such rules, she said, “we will continue taking action whenever necessary to ensure the safe transportation of hazardous materials by rail.”

The railroad industry and its regulators tout the relatively safe record of hazardous materials shipments by rail.

Tuesday’s civil penalties against the three companies could ultimately help first responders know what kind of hazardous material they’re dealing with should a derailment occur.

They would not, however, have substantively changed the emergency response to the derailments in Quebec, Alabama and North Dakota. Because of a comparable series of horrific rail accidents involving flammable materials in the 1970s, most fire departments know that they have little chance of fighting fires of such scale.

After a tank car filled with propane exploded in Waverly, Tenn., in February 1978, first responders have generally have kept their distance from such rail accidents until the fires burn out. In Waverly, 16 people were killed in the explosion, including half the town’s fire department, its fire chief and police chief. Dozens of others sustained severe burns.

The Waverly incident and others led to changes in emergency response and tank car design.

AFP Photo/Karen Bleier