Freight Rail Safety Focus of Senate Hearing

By Alan Levin | January 27, 2015

The safety of the U.S. freight rail system will be the first transportation topic tackled by the new leadership of the Senate’s commerce committee.

The committee, now under control of South Dakota Republican John Thune after his party took the majority of the Senate, will examine in a hearing Wednesday what has become a controversial issue. It touches on the U.S. shale-oil boom and recent fiery accidents of rail cars transporting oil products.

“From agriculture to energy production and finished goods, freight rail is a critical lifeline for our economy that also directly employs more than 180,000 Americans,” Thune said in a committee Web post. “This hearing will offer Senators an update on challenges facing the industry from railroads and those who depend on them.”

As production grew from U.S. oil fields, such as the Bakken in Thune’s neighboring state of North Dakota, pipelines couldn’t keep up and railroads have taken a growing share of crude to refineries. Carriers including BNSF Railway Co., the railroad owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., have benefited.

At the same time, accidents with derailments and spills have grown. A 2013 explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killed 47 as the volatile crude set fire to parts of the town.

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