Three times in the past 81/2 months, Alaska Railroad trains have derailed and spilled fuel. The most recent was Wednesday near the Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge.
Only one of the derailed tank cars lost some of its cargo of unleaded gasoline, and from all appearances damage was minimal.
That's good. But right now the railroad's performance is not good enough.
While this spill was negligible, imagine what might have happened if the derailment had been worse. This train was hauling 45 fuel tank cars. Each can hold 20,000 gallons. Do the math, and you find a fearsome worst case.
That's what's so worrisome about this rash of derailments. The railroad is still struggling with December's jet fuel spill at Gold Creek, and the hit-and-miss early response to that spill raised serious questions.
Railroad chief Bill Sheffield said ''it's been an abnormal year'' and added that Alaska trains travel through tough country.
We hope the year proves abnormal. We also hope the derailments provide catalysts to better prevention and swift, thorough response. And we hope we've seen the last of such catalysts.
Alaska's tough country is no surprise. It's a given. The railroad and any other shipper of hazardous materials need to be prepared for the challenges of spills and leaks in tough country. It's part of the cost of doing business in Alaska.
There's no question it's a tough assignment. Response to spills in remote locations presents severe challenges of logistics, manpower and planning.
But that tough assignment is part of the shipping business in Alaska.
Alaskans have demanded high standards of prevention and readiness for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. We should demand the same of the railroad.
Those serious questions that arose in December remain. Just what are the railroad's contingency plans? Why is a crew that's responsible for transporting hazardous material not trained to deal with a spill? Shouldn't the crew be ready to provide at least a minimal first response? It's axiomatic in spill response that the first hours are critical.
Ernie Piper, a railroad vice president, was on scene and shut down the tanker car leak in 90 minutes.
Mr. Piper made the right call to keep the crew safe. That comes first. But with training, a crew member might have been able to cut the spill much sooner.
Last December, Mr. Piper outlined steps the railroad was taking to improve both prevention and response to spills. One was daily inspection of track and switches between Hurricane and Talkeetna. The spill Wednesday was far south of that stretch.
Maybe track inspection needs to go farther.
Gov. Tony Knowles has appointed a Cabinet-level review team to make sure the Alaska Railroad is operating as safely as it can. Like any other enterprise, the railroad can't be perfect. But it can do better.
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