Officials: Recent Derailments Don’t Signify Rail Safety Threats in Riverside

City News Service Pristine Villarreal

RIVERSIDE (CNS) – A rash of train derailments, one of them resulting in a significant public health and environmental threat, do not reflect an overall breakdown in railroad safety, including along the network of railway lines that run through the Riverside metropolitan area, officials from two major rail operators insisted Friday.

“Burlington Northern Santa Fe is committed to safely and securely delivering the goods and products the American public depends on every day, including hazardous materials,” BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent told City News Service. “BNSF has made a significant investment in infrastructure, technology deployment, rigorous employee and first responder training, improved operating practices and community safety efforts.”

Kent emphasized that BNSF utilizes “specialized rail cars” to transport hazardous materials, and that there’s a pre-programmed system in place to “determine the safest rail routes” for hazmat products before they’re shipped.

A nexus of rail lines running in all cardinal directions are operated by BNSF and Union Pacific in Riverside. The lines additionally extend through large swaths of Riverside County, often paralleling freeways.

According to the Riverside Department of Public Works, the transcontinental corridors “carry over 75% of the freight from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.”

“Everyday approximately 128 trains pass through the city,” the agency stated.

Amtrak and Metrolink commuter trains also utilize the tracks.

UP spokeswoman Robynn Tysver said the freighter “shares the same goals as our customers and the communities we serve — to deliver every tank car safely.”

“We are required by federal law to transport chemicals and other hazardous commodities that Americans use daily, including fertilizer, ethanol, crude oil and chlorine,” she said.

She pointed out that UP maintains a “24-hour, 365-days-a-year emergency critical center and a robust emergency management plan.”

“We also have hazardous materials management teams placed regionally throughout our network to prevent, prepare and respond to emergency events,” Tysver said. “Union Pacific is using new technology and education to reduce variability and risks of derailment, and we are enhancing our training programs and re-emphasizing our safety culture through a joint effort with our union partners.”

BNSF did not have any association with the roughly half-dozen train derailments this month, which involved UP, Norfolk Southern and CSX.

The first and worst of the bizarre string occurred on Feb. 3, when a 50-car freighter went off the rails and ended up a crumpled heap in East Palestine, Ohio.

At least 11 cars were loaded with hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride used in construction and other applications. The substances were reportedly set aflame by railroad officials following consultation with federal authorities as part of a clearing process, sending up a chemical plume visible on National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration satellite images.

The impacts to water channels, soil and air from the dioxins emanating from the spill and burn-off have yet to be fully assessed in East Palestine and surrounding locations, including nearby Pennsylvania farm country. Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro said earlier this week that he had “serious concerns” about management of the derailment and that Norfolk Southern would be held accountable for damages.

This week, cargo trains crashed in Spartanburg, South Carolina; Houston, Texas; and on Thursday, in Van Buren Township, Michigan. At least one of the box cars in the Michigan crash did contain hazardous materials, but according to published reports, there was no spill.

“Railroads are the safest mode of transportation, delivering more than 99.9% of the hazardous commodities (to) their destination safely, without a release,” Tysver said.

The most catastrophic derailment in the Inland Empire occurred in May 1989, when a Southern Pacific freighter went off the tracks in San Bernardino after losing its brakes in the Cajon Pass, destroying 11 homes, killing two people and rupturing the Calnev petroleum pipeline, causing a massive fire days later, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Copyright 2023, City News Service, Inc.

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