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LaDuke: A solution for dangerous trains

"Canadian Pacific Railway wants to merge with the Kansas City Southern Railway, and that means more oil-filled trains and dangerous freight ... What if trains moved people and not dirty oil? The U.S. has the least developed passenger train system of any first world country. That’s a shame."

Winona LaDuke
Winona LaDuke
We are part of The Trust Project.

Editor's note: A previous version of this column incorrectly noted the train company involved in the 2013 train explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec The train that exploded was a Montreal, Maine and Atlantic train. This column has been corrected accordingly.

We might want to think twice about Canadian corporations owning our railways and pipelines. It’s time to move toward a safe future on the rails.

Canadian Pacific Railway wants to merge with the Kansas City Southern Railway, and that means more oil-filled trains and dangerous freight passing through five villages on the White Earth reservation, Detroit Lakes and more. Some of those trains will be full of tar sands oil, a 300% increase in traffic. The merger is up for approval at the National Surface Transportation Board, with hearings Sept. 28-30 in Washington, D.C.

“The people in my town of Ogema have been told to expect daily train traffic to increase from less than three trains per day to more than seven,” Eugene Tibbetts, former representative of White Earth reservation, explained. “This is a direct threat to public safety. Such a dramatic increase in train traffic would almost certainly result in further delays to emergency response vehicles.

“We cannot avoid the fact that some road traffic will always be delayed by trains. However, we should not actively seek to make it worse. This is an unnecessary risk and one that should be stopped in its tracks.”

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On July 13, 2013, a Montreal, Maine and Atlantic train explosion devastated Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people (the description was “vaporized”). A $450 million Lac-Megantic settlement fund was established for the victims.

Since 2013, 11 oil trains have exploded in fiery derailments and there have been a number of close calls. Public safety concerns on top of the climate pollution impacts of coal and oil have created stiff public opposition to many train-sponsored proposals.

A few years ago, I was sitting in my office in Callaway when an explosion rocked the town. That was a propane delivery truck, crossing the tracks. No one was killed. Had that been an oil train, the whole town would have been gone.

Some people may say that’s why we need more pipelines for the tar sands oil. To that I say, “How about we go electric?” After all, that’s what’s happening – electric car sales doubled last year and more to come.

What if trains moved people and not dirty oil? The U.S. has the least developed passenger train system of any first world country. That’s a shame. I just took a nice train up in northern Canada, the Polar Bear Express, right to Moosonee, at the bottom of Hudson Bay. The pleasure of trains came back to me — a beautiful view, cards with the family, visiting with neighbors and friends, and, of course, the food car. That’s the good train life.

By comparison, if you want to catch a train from Detroit Lakes to Minneapolis (a perfect run for a passenger train), you gotta cross your fingers it will arrive at 2:30 a.m. and depart at 3 a.m. That’s not a train for people. We used to have a train in northern Minnesota called the Galloping Goose. I want it back.

We have an opportunity to transform our train systems as essential infrastructure of this country. After all, trains are the most efficient way to move freight. And those trains should be safe, full of people and not dangerous freight.

Solutionary Rail is a bold policy proposal to transform the North American train system to an electric train system. The logic is pretty simple. Moving freight by train versus tractor trailer is about three times as efficient. Then think electric engines: fewer moving parts than diesels. A British study puts savings at 35% compared to conventional rail.

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The Solutionary Rail strategy centers on railroad electrification with renewable energy, accomplished in conjunction with a campaign of track modernization. This will bring the U.S. the reliable, electrified, higher-speed service now common on public railroads in countries from Europe to Asia. Italy is 65% electric trans, France, Germany, and Russia, have moved that way. Solutionary Rail is the economically practical option for most U.S. lines because existing tracks can be upgraded without building new lines, and both freight and passenger trains can be accommodated on the same lines.

More than that, a working, rural train system can revitalize our communities and be an essential component of a renewable energy economy. Power those trains with wind. This can unleash massive untapped potential such as Great Plains wind now stranded by insufficient transmission. Rural co-ops and tribal utilities in remote sun- and wind-rich regions especially stand to benefit, as do our communities.

In the last century, trains were used to destroy the buffalo and Native people. Millions of buffalo were shot from trains by sports hunters, left to rot on the prairies. That tragedy is remembered forever. In this century, let’s bring the trains back for good, keep our towns safe from the Canadian tar sands oil. Let’s make solutions, not more problems.

Winona LaDuke is executive director, Honor the Earth, and an Ojibwe writer and economist on Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation. She is also owner of Winona's Hemp and a regular contributor to Forum News Service.

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