U.S. calls for companies to improve safety of oil shipped by rail

Above: There’s evidence U.S. federal investigators knew about the risk of transporting crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields long ago. Mike Armstrong has the details.

U.S. transportation officials on Thursday pressed for companies to come up with safer ways to transport oil the nation’s rail lines following some explosive accidents as crude trains proliferate across North America.

After a closed-door meeting with oil and railway executives in Washington, D.C., Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the industry agreed to make voluntary changes aimed at accident prevention within the next 30 days.

Topping the list are plans to analyze the risks of oil trains that in recent years began passing regularly through major metropolitan areas across the U.S., Foxx said.

The results could be used to alter some routes, government officials said. Railways also will consider where oil trains reduce speedto lessen the potential danger in areas that pose the greatest threat to public safety.

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“The industry, if they are motivated, can undertake preventative steps that will enhance the safety of the movement of these materials across the country,” Foxx said.

The Obama administration is under increased pressure to take action after fiery accidents over the past seven months in North Dakota and Alabama as well as last summer’s rail tragedy in Lac-Megantic Que. that claimed 47 lives and the recent derailment and fire involving a CN train near Plaster Rock, N.B., earlier this month.

READ MORE: TSB to carry out full probe of CN train derailment in New Brunswick

However, a safety advocate said the proposed measures fail to address a crucial and longstanding problem: defects in many of the tank cars used to haul crude.

“Just moving the problem around is not solving it,” said Karen Darch, president of the village of Barrington, Ill., and co-chair of a coalition of local officials who have pushed for rail safety enhancements. “If you did that, you are creating too high a risk for the area where (oil trains) might be rerouted.”

READ MORE: What happens when you ask Transport Canada about rail safety reforms

Among those attending the meeting was Canadian National president and CEO Claude Mongeau, who later issued a statement saying his railway would work closely with the other Class 1 rail companies “to advance the specific safety initiatives discussed at the Washington meeting.”

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“CN believes that a comprehensive approach based on three key thrusts is required to further enhance the safety of crude oil transportation by rail,” Mongeau said.

Those include a sound safety management system, addressing “as quickly as practical” systemic risks associated with older tank cars used to transport flammable materials such as crude oil and strengthening emergency response capabilities.

READ MORE: Would you want these rail cars rolling through your backyard?

The accidents to date have revealed significant gaps in government oversight of the rail industry, and emergency officials in cities and towns across the U.S. have said they would be ill-prepared to handle another derailment.

Under current rules, shipments of most hazardous liquids including oil do not have to undergo the type of risk studies that were proposed Thursday. Those studies are limited to a handful of radioactive, explosive and highly-toxic chemicals.

The rapid expansion of crude-by-rail has been fueled by booming U.S. production of shale oil, particularly in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota and Montana. Trains hauling three million gallons of crude per shipment to refineries go through hundreds of towns and dozens of cities, from Chicago and Kansas City, to Philadelphia and Seattle.

Last year, after a runaway train hauling North Dakota crude derailed and exploded in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, incinerating much of the downtown and killing 47 people, the rail industry adopted voluntary speed restrictions for trains hauling hazardous liquids.

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Guidelines issued by the Association of American Railroads in August capped speeds at 50 miles per hour for trains hauling 20 or more tank cars of crude. It’s unclear how the speed reductions proposed Thursday would be different.

Experts say the same high-grade qualities that make Bakken oil attractive to companies can also make it prone to ignite during an accident. Regulators who have been analyzing the oil earlier this month issued a public safety alert warning that the light, sweet crude from the Bakken may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude.

North Dakota Senator John Hoeven attended Thursday’s meeting along with other members of the state’s congressional delegation. He characterized the results as a “step in the right direction” but said there was more work to do given projections that domestic oil production will keep growing and companies will continue moving it by rail.

Railroads recently began pushing for retrofits to improve the safety of 78,000 older, defective tank cars that make up the bulk of traffic hauling oil and other hazardous liquids. Oil companies that own or lease the tank cars have resisted retrofits that could cost $1 billion.

The oil industry contends defective track, train-on-train collisions and other matters under the purview of the railroads make up the “root cause” of accidents. During Thursday’s meeting, American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard told Foxx that the best way to improve safety is “to keep trains from going off the tracks,” according to a statement from the group.

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Government regulators declined to give a timeline on pending proposals for tank car safety improvements.

— With files from The Canadian Press

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