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Train safety provisions included in U.S. transportation bill

Repost from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Train safety provisions included in U.S. transportation bill

By Crocker Stephenson, Dec. 2, 2015
 Bakken oil trains rumble through downtown Milwaukee at 133 W. Oregon St., Milwaukee. A federal bill includes provisions requiring railroads to share safety information regarding trains and bridges with local officials.
Bakken oil trains rumble through downtown Milwaukee at 133 W. Oregon St., Milwaukee. A federal bill includes provisions requiring railroads to share safety information regarding trains and bridges with local officials. Image credit: Journal Sentinel files

The mammoth five-year federal transportation bill that lawmakers hope to send to President Barack Obama early next week includes provisions, championed by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), that would require railroads to share critical safety information with local communities.

“This legislation provides the transparency we’ve been begging and asking Canadian Pacific railroad for,” Milwaukee Common Council President Michael Murphy said during a news conference Wednesday outside a fire station at 100 W. Virginia St.

“It isn’t too much to ask a company that is using our public right of way to let us know if their bridges are safe and secure,” he said.

As if to illustrate Murphy’s point, a Canadian Pacific train pulling oil tankers rumbled across the bridge over S. 1st St. a few blocks to the north.

Milwaukee is in a rail corridor that ferries crude oil from North Dakota to refineries in metropolitan Chicago and beyond.

Since spring, Murphy and other city officials have been sparring with Canadian Pacific over its refusal to share with city engineers the results of its inspection of a rusty-looking bridge crossing W. Oregon St. at S. 1st St.

Canadian Pacific officials have insisted the bridge is safe, but they announced in August that the railroad plans to encase 13 of the bridge’s steel columns in concrete to protect them from further corrosion.

“Five to six months ago, the Milwaukee Common Council asked for information on bridges,” Ald. Terry Witkowski said. “We were greeted with silence.”

“With the stroke of a pen, the ball game has changed,” he said.

Concern over trains hauling potentially explosive fuel tankers through the heart of Milwaukee’s Fifth Ward increased last month when two petroleum-filled trains derailed in Wisconsin in a single week.

“Wisconsin first-responders should be applauded for their reaction to these derailments,” Baldwin said. “But railroad companies need to do more.”

According to Baldwin’s office, the bipartisan transportation bill contains several provisions pushed by the senator:

    • Transparency: A provision would require railroads to provide local officials with a public version of the most recent bridge inspection report
    • Real-time reporting: Currently, information about hazardous materials being carried through communities is available to first-responders only after an incident has occurred. A provision would require that information to be shared before a train carrying hazardous materials arrives in their jurisdiction.

“The thing we need is information,” Milwaukee Fire Chief Mark Rohlfing said. “So the more transparent our haulers become, the more prepared we can be.”

“Having the city have this information gives the Department of Public Works, our city engineer, access to information so that we can make an evaluation, so we can work with railroads to make sure we have safe rail crossings,” Mayor Tom Barrett said.

The roughly $300 billion transportation bill would also require the Department of Transportation to initiate a study on the appropriate level of insurance railroads hauling hazardous insurance should have, and it would ask the DOT to require that railroads improve their plans for responding to catastrophic oil discharges.

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