GUEST EDITORIAL: Independent crash investigations will keep railroads safe

There was a time in America when railroads were a sovereign power — close to being a fourth branch of government.

In the 19th century, thanks to their enormous land grants and economic clout, they had the power to make some communities boom or bust. They held plenty of sway in Washington, D.C., too.

Even today, railroads pull plenty of might down their tracks, and can wield similar power within the industries and economies that rely on them.

In the wake of June’s oil train derailment at Mosier, Oregon, it is encouraging to see Oregon U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley try to hold the railroads accountable. The senators last week introduced legislation that would call for mandatory, independent investigations of oil train derailments.

The Mandate Oil Spill Investigations and Emergency Rules (MOSIER) Act of 2016 calls on the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate oil train derailments and gives the Federal Railroad Administration the authority to put a moratorium on oil trains until the investigations are complete.

Following the Mosier accident, the National Transportation Safety Board did not investigate, because there were no injuries or fatalities. Union Pacific conducted its own investigation and identified loose links between rails and ties as the cause of the crash.

Wyden offered a colorful observation about the UP investigation. Having railroads investigate their own accidents is like “Colonel Sanders guarding the chicken coop,” the senator said. And we all know how that turns out for the chickens.

America’s freight railroad network is essential to our economy, especially here in Eastern Oregon. Union Pacific employs many locals, and the cost of many goods and services is set by how cheaply it can be transported to market.

But we don’t allow boat or car or plane companies to lead investigations of their crashes, so why would we allow it when the offending vehicle is a train? They should be held to the same standards, so as a nation we can be sure that railways are as safe as possible.

Railroads remain a great influencer on community health and welfare in our region. Holding them to high standards and requiring them to own up to and fix their mistakes is good for them and for us.

— East Oregonian
Pendleton, Oregon