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Editorial: No secrets in rail safety

With Philadelphia trying to become a major energy hub, the wall of secrecy surrounding the condition of tracks and bridges used by trains carrying highly flammable crude oil through neighborhoods, behind schools, and past commerce centers, must come down.

Every week, about 150 million gallons of crude move through the region, but the people who would be most affected by an accident have no way of knowing whether the tracks or bridges used by oil freight cars are safe.

More than 700,000 people in the region live within a half-mile of rail lines, The Inquirer’s Paul Nussbaum reported Sunday. Federal emergency guidelines call for nearby residents to be evacuated if a train catches fire, so clearly they have a vested interest in knowing the condition of tracks and bridges.

However, the railroads aren’t subject to the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, which means what the railroads find after inspecting bridges and tracks isn’t open to public scrutiny. The Federal Railroad Administration doesn’t even keep a list of how many rail bridges there are.

Related: Gov. Wolf sends letter to railroad companies asking to use safety measures

New rules have voided a federal requirement that railroads share information about large oil shipments with state emergency response commissions. And in those cases where railroads and emergency responders collaborate, the information they share is exempt from public disclosure laws.

That’s just wrong. The public must know the condition of tracks and bridges to urge government intervention when necessary. Otherwise, railroads more concerned with their bottom lines may put profits ahead of public safety.

An oil-laden train derailed and exploded two years ago in Quebec, killing 47 people. Last year, six of seven cars that derailed on the Schuylkill Arsenal Bridge near University City were carrying crude oil. Fortunately, no one was injured, and no oil leaked. Neither was anyone injured earlier this month when a North Dakota town had to be evacuated after an oil train derailed and caught fire.

Without public review, it is impossible to know whether the railroads are diligently trying to remedy infrastructure and safety problems and are working closely with emergency responders to make sure they are prepared to deal with oil train accidents.

Railroads have cited national security and the need to protect proprietary information as reasons for their secrecy, but those sound more like excuses. Withholding information from the public won’t keep a would-be terrorist from targeting easily recognizable oil cars as they pass through a city.

For too long, railroads have appeared to exert undue influence over government. Government needs to show more concern for public safety by insisting on full disclosure of the railroads’ findings after they inspect tracks and bridges.

This article was from The Philadelphia Inquirer and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.