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Editorial: Off the rails

| Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, 11:18 a.m.

They say something goes “off the rails” for a reason.

It’s something unpredictable and wild, potentially disastrous, hard to clean up.

When a freight train derailed Sunday on the South Side, it was all of that.

There is a reason Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said this is the kind of thing that has worried him for years. This was a train filled with diapers and mouthwash, and it shut down rails for days and narrowly missed dropping its cargo on another locomotive carrying passengers.

It begs for “what-ifs.” What if it had been carrying something flammable, caustic or otherwise dangerous? What if the infrastructure damage was worse? What if someone died? What if a lot of people died?

Philadelphia knows why Peduto has been afraid. The 2015 Amtrak derailment in the Port Richmond area of that city injured 200 and killed eight. Clearing the rails took a week. The resulting investigation took a year.

This isn’t to say that trains aren’t safe, or are more dangerous than cars. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety puts fatal car crashes in Pennsylvania at 1,088 in 2016, the most recent year with statistics. And that’s just the fatal ones, not the ones where the vehicle was a total loss but everyone survived or even just the parking lot fender benders.

We can’t point to specific actions to take in a situation where we don’t even know the cause of the derailment. And we can’t fault the response of those on the scene, from Port Authority of Allegheny County worker Princess Ferguson — who jumped into action and directed passengers to safety — to those who have been working diligently to clear the tracks quickly and safely.

But with Norfolk Southern’s attempts to gain permission to put those same double-stacked train cars with six shipping containers apiece on North Side bridges, something that would require state and federal approvals, Peduto’s concerns seem valid.

The Greater Pittsburgh area is built on a tangled web of rails and streets, bridges and tunnels, and expanding the transportation of those cars without proper planning could be a real train wreck.

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