This is train country. Freight trains have rumbled through local communities for so long that their sight and sounds have become a backdrop to our lives.
They pass along Lake Champlain, stopping at little buildings in a smattering of small towns and at the rambling structure in the City of Plattsburgh that once housed a busy station.
Unless we are taking the train north to Montreal or south to Albany and beyond, we don’t think about them much.
But we must. Because, as we have learned in explosive fashion over the past half year, the cargo carried by some of those cars can be extremely dangerous if freed from its confines.
Last July 6, a 72-car train loaded with crude oil crashed as it passed through Lac-Mégantic, a small town in Quebec. The derailment and roaring fire that followed killed 42 people and leveled half of the downtown.
On Dec. 30, an oil train collided with another train in North Dakota, bursting into a fireball that consumed 10 cars.
If you have waited at a crossing in the North Country as a long freight train passed by, you know that oil cars travel through this area, too. And you probably remember that trains have derailed here from time to time over the years.
While major disasters caused by train accidents are rare, they can happen, and local residents need assurance that safety is a priority — in the minds of railroad officials and government leaders.
A two-part series by the Press-Republican last week uncovered concern among local first-responders about the lack of information provided to them about the contents of cargo trains.
Railroad companies don’t want to reveal what they are carrying, partly because national-security guidelines established to prevent terrorist attacks discourage full disclosure.
Responders say it takes too long after an accident and is too complicated a procedure to find out what kind of substance they are dealing with. Crude oil and other flammables aren’t the only danger; the cars can be carrying chemicals that place firefighters, cleanup crews, area residents and even water supplies in peril during a derailment.
The makeup of shipping containers carried by rail has been called into question, as well. North Country Congressman Bill Owens is pressing the Federal Railroad Administration and U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for safer tanker cars.
In a rare partnership, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada jointly released recommendations to toughen standards on trains carrying crude oil.
And New York officials are urging immediate federal action to protect communities and natural resources. The state wants revised design specifications for certain railcars and “aggressive phase-out” of those that can’t be retrofitted; more stringent crude-oil testing standards; changes to federal standards for flammable liquids; and train-route reviews.
It took life-shattering accidents to prompt all this federal and state attention to railroad safety. It shouldn’t take another one to put crucial changes on track.