How much is a human life worth? That may sound like a cold calculation, but it is relevant to a dispute over safety standards for trains that carry highly flammable crude oil and ethanol across the United States, including down the Columbia Gorge.
In September, the Trump administration scrapped an Obama-era rule that would have required new-generation electronic brakes on trains carrying flammable fuels, saying the cost of complying with the new rule would be higher than the benefit.
Last week, the Associated Press determined that the government’s analysis of the new rule left out $117 million in estimated future damages from train derailments that could be prevented by installing the electronic braking systems.
Not to worry, Transportation Department officials said. They will publish a correction in the federal register, but the decision to scrap the rule stands.
Why? Because even with the additional savings, the cost of better brakes still exceeds the benefit of fewer crashes.
This is just the latest example of train and oil industry resistance to safety improvements aimed at oil trains that pose the risk of catastrophic explosions and fires. In 2015, the Obama administration adopted a package of new safety requirements after dozens of accidents involving trains carrying hundreds of tank cars full of volatile crude oil from tar sands in Canada. The worst such accident happened in 2013 in Quebec, when an unattended oil train derailed in Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people and obliterating much of the town in a huge fireball.
In 2016, a Union Pacific train derailed near Mosier in the Columbia Gorge. No one was killed, and the resulting fire did no major damage, but the accident could have been much worse.
The new braking systems apply brakes simultaneously on all cars in a train rather that sequentially, as conventional air brake systems do. This allows trains to stop faster and reduces the number of cars that derail.
Safety advocates are calling for reconsidering the rule and recalculating the benefits of the new brakes.
The modern technology is not cheap; the Obama Transportation Department estimated upgrading braking systems would cost $664 million over 20 years, but would save $470 million to $1.1 billion from avoiding accidents. The Trump administration reduced that benefit to between $131 million and $374 million, based largely on a drop in the number of oil train shipments to 200,000 carloads.
While fewer shipments might mean statistically fewer accidents, all it takes is one to destroy property and claim lives. Transportation officials should recalculate the benefit of preventing those deaths before they happen, not after.