Our View: California makes progress on train safety by inspecting railroad bridges

It’s encouraging that important steps are being taken to make sure oil trains rumbling through California don’t derail, but the job isn’t nearly done yet.

In the past, railroad companies have been solely responsible for the inspection and safety of their tracks and bridges. Now, for the first time, the California Public Utilities Commission plans to check behind safety inspections, focusing on those most likely to carry highly volatile crude oil from fracking operations the Bakken shale in North Dakota. That oil is considered too volatile for most pipelines, so virtually all of it is transported by train.

The commission is deploying two new bridge inspectors – among seven new rail inspectors hired with money allocated by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature in response to rising concerns over vastly increased oil-train traffic in California. The inspectors will likely work as a team, visiting four bridges a week. They won’t be doing full inspections, but rather reviewing that the railroads’ safety checks are in proper order.

At that rate, it would take 50 years to check all 5,000 rail bridges. So the commission is compiling a priority list of the first 30 bridges to be inspected in 2015.

Trains carrying the Bakken crude will soon be moving south from Sacramento through the San Joaquin Valley – Escalon, Modesto, Turlock, Merced – to newly outfitted refineries near Bakersfield. Currently, most of the oil moves west from Sacramento to Benica, but that is already changing.

The U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order in May for notification of local first-responders when there are shipments of at least 1 million gallons (about 35 rail cars) of crude. That’s a loophole the railways can drive a train through. In August, The Bee and the Sun-Star called for rules that would notify area first responders when even a single car of such hazardous material is moving through any populated area. Now, California’s two U.S. senators have joined that call, and asked for other rule changes. Considering that a single car filled with Bakken crude once flew nearly a mile after an explosion is reason enough for the change.

The notification mandate is among proposed rules on oil trains federal officials plan to impose by year’s end. They also include phasing out older rail cars, lower speed limits and more comprehensive response plans for spills.

Those federal regulations will become even more crucial if California’s two major railroad companies – BNSF and Union Pacific – win their federal lawsuit filed Tuesday that challenges a new state law requiring them to come up with oil spill prevention and response plans. The companies argue that federal law prevents states from imposing such safety rules.