The Department of Transportation outlined several steps Friday aimed at improving the safety of crude oil in trains after a series of derailments sparked concern from state and local officials.
Among other measures, trains carrying crude oil in older, less reinforced tank cars will slow to 40 mph through 46 major cities.
Railroads will also conduct more frequent inspections of tracks over which crude oil shipments move, improve those trains’ braking capabilities and install new sensors along major routes to detect train defects.
The department also said it will work with railroads to determine the safest routing options for crude oil, examine emergency response capabilities and address the concerns of individual communities on a case-by-case basis.
The measures are voluntary, and will be implemented by July 1.
“Every day, we expect continuous safety improvement,” Joseph Szabo, who heads the Federal Railroad Administration, told McClatchy.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx laid out the steps in a letter to the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s Washington advocacy group.
“Nothing is more important for all involved than safety,” he wrote.
Edward Hamberger, the rail industry group’s president and CEO, said in a statement that the industry would continue “to find even more ways to reinforce public confidence in the rail industry’s ability to safely meet the increased demand to move crude oil.”
According to Hamberger’s group, the volume of crude oil moving by rail increased to 400,000 cars last year, from fewer than 10,000 in 2008. Rail has captured the bulk of crude shipments from North Dakota’s booming Bakken shale region, in large part because pipelines simply don’t go where the oil is needed and take a long time to construct.
In a statement, Roxanne Butler, a spokeswoman for BNSF Railway, said the railroad supports the steps DOT outlined Friday. On Thursday, BNSF, the continent’s leading hauler of crude oil in trains, said it will buy 5,000 new, better-reinforced tank cars for crude. Billionaire investor Warren Buffett bought the Fort Worth, Texas, company in 2009.
“The rail industry plays a critical role in helping the U.S. and North American economies achieve energy independence,” Butler said, “and this crude oil safety initiative will enable that to continue to develop with even greater safety.”
The rapid development of Bakken oil forced the use of tens of thousands of tank cars, called DOT-111A, that have long been identified as vulnerable to breaches in derailments. Regulators concluded last month that Bakken oil, extracted through hydraulic fracturing, is more flammable than conventional oils.
The results have proved destructive and deadly. In July, 47 people were killed when a train loaded with Bakken crude derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. More recent derailments in Alabama, North Dakota and Pennsylvania resulted in intense fires, large spills or both. Officials from mayors to members of Congress have demanded that federal regulators respond to the new danger their communities face.
“These standards are good news for communities near rail lines, but there is more work to do,” said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., who is on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
The committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on rail safety. Officials from the Transportation Department, the rail and petroleum industries and the National Transportation Safety Board will testify.
Friday’s announcement does not address the safety of the DOT-111A tank cars. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration at the Transportation Department is working on new standards for them, but a final rule will likely not come for another year.
Szabo, the federal railroad administrator, said that tank cars are “one small piece of the puzzle.”
The NTSB has noted their failures in multiple accidents over the years, and recommended that they be retrofitted with extra protective shielding or replaced with new cars.
Meanwhile, BNSF and other railroads are moving in that direction. Canada’s two largest railroads last week said they will impose additional fees on shipments of crude oil in older DOT-111A tank cars.
At least two refiners have said they will only ship crude oil in newer tank cars.