Federal and state transportation officials have performed a miracle before our own eyes.
They have actually compelled a railroad company to provide useful, helpful information.
For anyone who has ever tried to get information about how railroads operate or what they transport, the task is often thankless and futile. Railroads operators don't see much value in providing information and they often don't have any reason to cooperate with local communities.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx last week ordered railroads to provide specifics about oil train routes, crude volumes and other information to state officials. It would have to be someone like Foxx — a cabinet-level leader — to compel the railroads to part with information.
Montana officials released details Tuesday week on oil trains passing through the state, even though railroads are vowing to fight the order. It is unknown whether they will try to stop the information sometime in the future.
Probably most shockingly, the railroad companies still continue to drag their feet or consider fighting the ruling even after some horrifying accidents involving oil trains raised safety concerns about the rolling stock which transports the crude, and whether local communities are adequately prepared to handle a disaster in or near their community.
Andrew Huff, chief legal counsel for Gov. Steve Bullock, said it the best: "Part of the whole reason the federal government order that this information be given to states is to protect the communities through which these trains roll."
In other words, these companies value secrecy more than the safety of the communities which may not realize the danger that is rolling through them.
This isn't just a victory for openness and transparency — this is a victory for public safety.
Ironically, that's the exact reason that railroad operators argue the information should not be released: If it falls into the wrong hands it could be used for substantial harm.
We'd argue that while it's true that plans could be used for sabotage or terror, that kind of information likely would have been available for collection or observation whether or not the information was made public. In other words, it's not so hard to figure out what the trains carry or how many trains come through a community on a given day. Heck, just ask the people sitting in backed-up traffic every day along North 27th Street.
What this information can do, though, is help emergency responders understand the quantity of oil coming straight through the heart of places like downtown Billings. Now, they'll know.
Another important aspect of releasing information is the community will know. Communities should have a right to know what is passing closely to homes, clinics, schools and stores. Railroad executives sitting in some other community may not care or really know where places like Billings or Laurel are, but this is our home and our community. We should know what risks are posed by the trains passing through. We should ask tough questions about safety and liability.
Concerns regarding exploding or potentially dangerous shipments of crude aren't just hypothetical scenarios. Train derailments and fires have happened in North Dakota, Alabama, Virginia and Quebec. Crude shipments in the first quarter of 2014 topped 110,000 carloads, according to the Associated Press. And, North Dakota oil production has just topped 1 million barrels of crude per day.
Be prepared shouldn't just be a Boy Scout motto. In order to be prepared, though, we have to have reliable information.