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Rep. Mabrey & Sen. Cutter: Opinion: Increasing railway safety rules in Colorado is up to state lawmakers

Jan 2, 2024

This op-ed was published in the Colorado Sun on Jan 2, 2024

Over the past few years, there have been a number of high profile train derailments, most notably the one in East Palestine, Ohio, in February. For several months this summer, we’ve worked alongside our colleagues on the Transportation Legislation Review Committee to craft Colorado legislation that will reduce the risk of railway accidents. When a train derailed onto Interstate 25 near Pueblo this fall and killed one man, it was clear our legislation was timely and important.

The October derailment exemplifies the complex and far-reaching reasons we need to improve our rail system in Colorado. A single train accident can exert short- and long-term effects on our economy, environment, health and, tragically, can result in loss of life.

In the Pueblo accident, 30 cars of a 124-car coal train derailed, spilling tons of coal onto I-25. The derailment caused a bridge to collapse, closed lanes for nine miles in both directions for days and killed a truck driver.

Although the initial findings of the federal investigation show the derailment was likely due to a broken rail, what we know with certainty is this: There is an urgent need to address rail transportation safety in a way that ensures economic needs are met while prioritizing the safety of our communities and transportation workers.

The threats of railway accidents aren’t isolated to the Front Range. Western Slope leaders and advocacy organizations have been fighting back against the proposed Uinta Basin Railway (UBR) for years. Although we are encouraged that the project is currently facing challenges in federal courts, if it were to move forward, it would result in a significant increase in hazardous materials transported through Colorado from Utah oil fields — alongside the Colorado River and through heavily forested areas.

The UBR would service up to five, two-mile trains per day carrying billions of gallons of waxy crude oil every year. Compared to today’s operations, that would quintuple the volume of oil being transported. To put it in perspective, the volume of oil transported through Colorado from the UBR would be more than all oil transported in rail cars throughout the entire U.S. in 2022.

Part of the route runs alongside the Colorado River for more than 100 miles through sometimes winding, narrow and difficult terrain. Over 40 million people rely on the Colorado River, including seven states and 30 tribal nations. Contamination of this critical waterway would be catastrophic, environmentally and economically. The Colorado River generates millions from our tourism economy every year. According to the Colorado River Outfitters Association, commercial river activity provided nearly a quarter-billion dollars in economic impact for Colorado in 2022.

What’s more, wildfires are an increasing problem in Colorado, and the possibility of sparks causing dangerous wildfires in densely forested and hard-to-reach areas is deeply concerning. Improper railway safety puts our water quality, first responders, communities, tourism economies and wildlife at risk.

To allow the UBR to move forward is not only risky, it’s dangerous. Regardless of whether this sweeping proposal advances, railroads transporting hazardous materials through our state should be required to take extra precautions to prevent derailments.

If passed, the bill we are proposing will dramatically improve railway safety in the face of current and future threats and protect Colorado’s communities, ecosystems and economy. After months of discussions with experts, advocacy groups and concerned Coloradans, we’ve developed legislation that would take the following steps to improve safety:

  • Limit the length of trains to 8,500 feet. Many trains run miles in length with only one operator. Shorter trains that are well maintained are less susceptible to derailments.

  • Require the use of proven technologies, like wayside detectors and dragging equipment, to alert crews of defects that can lead to accidents. Proactive detection tools would promote the safe and efficient movement of goods across Colorado, and help stop accidents before they happen.

  • Assist communities in preparing for inevitable accidents. Under our bill, railroads will have to provide training and safety drills on hazardous materials to local first responders, who are often the first ones on site after a wreck.

  • Empower union members to report certain safety violations. It’s imperative that we establish an environment within Colorado’s rail industry where workers feel secure in coming forward to ensure their safety and the well-being of others.

  • Ensure railroads have the insurance necessary to cover the costs of catastrophic accidents. If a railroad is carrying hazardous materials, then they should meet a minimum insurance requirement in case of incidents.

Increased pressure to put profits over safety has put workers, our environment and communities at risk. The failure of the U.S. Senate to move forward with federal rail safety legislation — despite widespread bipartisan support — means it’s up to us to raise rail safety standards for Colorado.

Sen. Lisa Cutter was elected to the Colorado Senate in 2022 to represent District 20 and serves as a member of the Transportation and Energy Committee and the Health and Human Services Committee.

Rep. Javier Mabrey was elected to the Colorado House in 2022 to represent District 1 and serves on the Business Affairs and Labor and Judiciary Committees and the Committee on Legal Services.

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