States Hide Safety Failures Over Routing Data on Crude Oil Trains

August 13, 2014

Just over a year after an oil-train explosion in Quebec killed 47 people, information on the threats oil trains present to public safety is starting to seep through a long blackout in which railroads convinced pliable federal regulators that the public was better off not knowing.

Local first responders and some state governments are leading the way by disclosing the number of potentially explosive trains and the populated areas they rumble through. Even oil-friendly states like Pennsylvania and Oklahoma are slowly changing their minds. And journalists using the Freedom of Information Act have shown a vulnerable public what some states are hiding with encouragement by the railroads.

Journalists from the Associated Press and McClatchy Newspapers were having poor luck prying the information loose from Maryland and Pennsylvania, two of the states that have been reluctant to disclose. But Amtrak, the passenger railroad, owns some tracks along the Northeast Corridor used by oil trains operated by CSX and Norfolk Southern. And Amtrak is subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In early August, the two news organizations got FOIA'd information about oil trains running over the Amtrak track segments in the two states.

The cat may be out of the bag, though. After the Federal Railroad Administration ruled that states could not withhold the information on security grounds, the politically powerful railroads convinced some states to sign non-disclosure agreements. Such an agreement is now under legal challenge in Maryland.