Rail accident underscores shortcomings

Wednesday’s train derailment in the southwestern Bedford County borough of Hyndman, while tragic, can also spawn appreciation for all of the strides that have been made in terms of railroad safety.

While last week’s accident might make some people skeptical about whether enough has been done on the safety front, the fact is that bigger area communities such as Altoona and Johnstown, as well as the many smaller ones with a major, active railroad presence, generally are not fearful as the trains, with myriad varieties of cargoes — some dangerous, some not — pass through.

For the most part, this region has compiled a remarkable railroad safety record, considering the volume of train traffic that it accommodates.

But while the Southern Alleghenies region generally can feel blessed with how the railroad industry operates here, Wednesday’s incident exposed one shortcoming about which all counties where rail service exists should take notice, and act accordingly.

It is that Bedford County’s current five-year hazard plan doesn’t address the train-derailment issue to the extent that an issue of such importance should be addressed.

That observation came from Donald Schwartz, Bedford County planning director, who said the omission likely will be rectified in the new hazard plan currently being prepared.

“Likely” no longer is an apt reference; “definitely” is the right word.

Beyond what’s happening on the local front, the Hyndman incident will stoke intense scrutiny by state and federal transportation officials. From the state’s standpoint, that became clear when Gov. Tom Wolf quickly traveled to an evacuation site near Ellerslie, Md.

Meanwhile, the proverbial seeds already are planted for what could be a lengthy federal probe into the cause of the accident; the actions of the train crew; safety efforts of CSX, whose train was involved in the accident; and the railroad’s accident response.

But there is much more to consider regarding what happened on Wednesday than the crash itself, the clean-up and the investigation that’s already underway; it’s the direct impact on Hyndman, the community and the people who reside there.

It’s a source of relief that the crash resulted in no fatalities or injuries to townsfolk, even though the accident took place at a time of vulnerability — a time when most residents no doubt were asleep and unaware of the serious consequences that were being thrust upon them.

That was followed quickly by fears and anxieties about what to expect, going forward, not only about themselves personally but also regarding their homes, vehicles and other personal property.

And the effects of the leaks of dangerous gas and other substances from the ruptured railcars provided threats not only within the borough limits, but who yet knows how far beyond the community.

Owners of livestock and pets have to be wondering whether those animals’ well-being has been endangered. Have any water supplies been compromised? In general, how long will it be until Hyndman and its environs can return to normalcy?

How long will it be before the people who suffered moderate or severe damage to their homes will receive reimbursement for their losses?

Every railroad town realizes the dangers that exist with that mode of shipping and transportation, but people usually don’t think much about them, due to the safety emphases in place.

The investigation into the cause of Wednesday’s accident will clarify whether any new concerns, precautions or remedial measures are necessary amid what’s been the long-standing attitude of confidence.