Osama bin Laden 1; Railroads 0

The terrorists have defeated the railroads, and by extension, the people. Well, not totally defeated, but they won a small but important battle.

We have a problem with the wholesale removal of petroleum from the Bakken oil fields, and the shipping of that relatively dangerous liquid mainly to the east coast on trains, with hundreds of tanker cars rolling down a small selection of tracks every day. I see them all the time as they go through my neighborhood. These trains derail now and then, and sometimes those derailments are pretty messy, life threatening, and even fatal.

There has been some effort in Minnesota to get the train companies to upgrade their disaster plans, which is important because about 300,000 Minnesotans live in the larger (one half mile) disaster zone that flanks these track. A smaller number, but not insignificant, live int he blast zone, the place where if a couple of train cars actually exploded you would be within the blast area. For the last couple of years, my son was at a daycare right in that blast zone. I quickly add that the chance of being blasted by an oil train is very small, because the tracks are in total thousands of miles long, derailments are rare(ish), and the affected areas can be measured in city blocks. So a blast from a Bakken oil train may be thought of as roughly like a large air liner crash, or may be two or three times larger than that, in terms of damage on the ground.

But yes, the trains derail at a seemingly large rate.

Now, here is where the terrorists come in. And by terrorists I specifically mean Osama bin (no relation) Laden, or his ghost, and that gang of crazies that took down the world trade center in New York. When that happened, we became afraid of terrorism, and everyone who could use that fear for personal gain has since exploited it. I'm pretty sure that the rise of the police state in America has been because of, facilitated by, and hastened due to this event. For years the American people let the security forces and related government agencies do pretty much whatever they wanted. The Patriot Act, you may or may not know, is a version of a law that conservatives have been pushing in the US for decades, a draconian law that gives great power to investigative and police agencies. That law never got very far in Congress until 9/11. Then, thanks to Osama bin Laden, it seemed like everyone wanted it. Only now, years later, are we seriously considering rolling it back (and to some extent acting on that consideration).

So now, the railroads have been forced to come up with a disaster plan related to the oil shipments. And they did. But for the most part they won't let anyone see it. Why? Because, according to one railroad official, "... to put it out in the public domain is like giving terrorists a road map on how to do something bad."

What does he mean exactly? As far as I can tell, the disaster plan pinpoints specific scenarios that would be especially bad. These scenarios, if they fell into the hands of terrorists, would allow said terrorists to terrorize more effectively.

I'm sure this is true. But I'm also sure this is not a reason to keep the plans secret. There are three reasons, in my view, that the plans should be totally available for public review.

1) If you want to know what the worst case scenarios for a rail tanker disaster are, don't read this report. It is easier to get out a map, maybe use some GIS software if you have it, and correlate localities where the train tracks cross over bridges, cross major water sources, and go through dense population areas. A high bridge through an urban area over an important river, for instance. This is not hard. Indeed, I call on all social studies teachers with an attitude (and most of the good ones have an attitude) to make this a regular project in one of your classes. Have the students try to think like terrorists and identify the best way to terrorize using oil trains. The reason to do this is to point out how dumb the railroads are being.

2) Secret plans are plans that can be exploited or misused by those who make them. We will see security measures taken that, for example, limit public access to information unrelated to oil trains, with the terroristic threat used as an excuse. I'm sure this has already happened. It will continue to happen. It is how the police state works.

3) The plans can be better. How do I know this? Because all plans can be better. That's how plans work. How can you make the plans better? Scrutiny. How do you get scrutiny? Don't make the plans secret.

MPR news has a pretty good writeup on this situation here. MPR is fairly annoyed at the secrecy, as they should be, but frankly I'd like to seem this and other news agencies, as well as the state legislators involved, and everyone else, more fired up. We should all be working harder against the police state.

I want to end with this: I like trains, and you should too. Trains are among the most efficient ways to move stuff across the landscape. Those of us concerned with things like climate change should be all for trains. Ultimately, I think we can increase the use of trains to move goods and people, and at the same time take the trains off fossil carbon. They are already mostly electric, using liquid fuel to run generators. That liquid fuel could be made, largely, from renewable biodiesel and a bit of grown biodiesel, and more of the trains can probably go all electric. But this secrecy thing is not OK.

More like this

“… to put it out in the public domain is like giving terrorists a road map on how to do something bad.”

If that is the best excuse they can come up with I would guess the plan is just as shitty: based on recent history, any terrorist, domestic or otherwise, who is worth his or her salt already knows how to do something bad. If these trains haven't yet been targeted it's likely because of a decision that there are better targets around.

I'll simply add that it isn't just bridges over water that we need to be concerned about: here in Michigan there is on-going concern over an oil pipeline Enbridge (the folks who fouled the Kalamazoo River a few years ago) have beneath the Straights of Mackinac. Apparently the data they have concerning it is "too complex" for state officials to make hide or hair of. (From other sources the problem seems to be an incredibly badly written report from Enbridge, with no real effort to summarize or explain aspects of the data.)


“… to put it out in the public domain is like giving terrorists a road map on how to do something bad.”

These officials seem not to have heard. There is this thing on the internet called Google Maps. It offers options for street view and satellite view, the latter of which is based at least partly on public domain images. Anybody can look at these maps and find target locations of the sort Greg describes. No assistance from the railroad companies is needed.

Security through obscurity might work with information that only two or three people know. I suspect that many more than three people were involved in producing the report. The chances that someone will talk rapidly approach 100% as you add people beyond the third. And that's even before you consider the possibility of somebody figuring it out independently.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 25 Aug 2015 #permalink

As soon as the Patriot Act was put in place I heard the american people scream in terror....Osama YOU WIN!!! We are terrified!!!! Please Protect our zero lives oh great uncle. Here are my freedoms!
And The TT was a great political statement, but the oil & freight RR are a better economical target. Passenger targets not so much.

Trains have weaknesses and strengths. On the down side artfully damaging the tracks can lead to a wreck. Doing it at or near a population center or a vital resource can multiply the damage.

On the up side there is the fact that by virtue of using tracks trains can be, if we were so inclined and willing to allocate resources, routed away from the most sensitive areas. If a train wreck happens at a sensitive spot it is, at least in part, because someone put the tracks there. Where it is unavoidable the tracks and associated systems and controls can be designed to drastically lower the chances of an accident and/or the damage done.

Also, by virtue of the trains transporting their cargo in individual cars there is some potential to limit the numbers and amounts of volatile cargo involved in any accident. In WW2 it wasn't uncommon for trains carrying explosives to have a short train ahead of them to detect problems with the track and for the railway cars on the back train to have buffer cars, often cars filled with sand, inserted between cars carrying explosives. even in a massive derailment two or three cars filled with gravel or sand can compartmentalize the destruction.

This isn't meant to be a manual, but merely to point out that train wrecks are engineering problems that can managed through allocations of resources like any other issue. They don't have to happen as often as they do, and they don't have to be as destructive as they are.

It also has to be pointed out that pipelines are not without their own issues. Railroad issues are obvious and so they will, in time, and as political capital is allocated, be handled. Pipeline issues are less obvious, more treacherous, and are at least as dangerous.

That isn't to say that they can't be managed.

Thanks, Osama!

By David Kirtley (not verified) on 26 Aug 2015 #permalink

Yes, any terrorist worth his salt knows how to blow up stuff and create terror without having been given a "road map" — just as he knows, without being told in a newspaper story, that the NSA is monitoring his communications and therefore he will use cell phones very little, if at all, and avoid online financial transactions.

Withholding these plans from the public may indeed prevent some terrorists from coming up with really devastating attacks. But they aren't the terrorists officials should be worried about. The dangerous terrorists are fully capable of designing and executing devastating attacks all by themselves.

Once upon a time the public was asked to be vigilant about likely attack sites: transportation nexuses, power plants, cultural symbols like the Statue of Liberty, etc. The same policy should apply to these railroad scenarios.

On the other hand, I do see reasons for keeping them private. One would be to minimize public knowledge of oil tank car traffic. There's already considerable opposition to such traffic, and railroad execs know it. IIRC, it was in Seattle that a private citizen personally counted the oil trains daily for a period of time; this was the only way he could get information on them.

By Christopher Winter (not verified) on 29 Aug 2015 #permalink