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Rail industry outlines safety changes to ease crude-by-rail concerns

WASHINGTON – Railroads hauling crude oil will beef up inspections on their tracks and cut speeds to 40 mph while traveling through major metro areas – most trains already travel through the Fargo area at 35 mph – as part of a set of new industry-imposed changes outlined Friday.

The new safety initiatives, announced by the Association of American Railroads after weeks of discussion with federal railroad and hazardous materials regulators, are meant to address safety concerns after a year marked by several fiery accidents – including the Dec. 30 derailment in Casselton.

Huge growth in crude-by-rail shipments across the nation has been driven by the oil boom in North Dakota, where trains hauled 800,000 barrels per day out of the Bakken region late last year, according to estimates.

In a statement announcing the changes, AAR President and CEO Edward Hamberger said the railroad industry and the U.S. Department of Transportation “worked together to swiftly pinpoint new operating practices that enhance the safety of moving crude oil by rail.”

Among those voluntary changes:

  •  Starting March 25, railroads will conduct additional inspections for internal rail flaws and geometric issues using high-tech equipment on routes that carry crude oil.
  •  Crude oil trains will be equipped with more effective braking systems by April 1.
  •  Later this year, the industry will use special software to ensure crude-by-rail shipments are moved on the safest routes possible.
  •  Railroad companies will help develop specific training for first responders to handle crude-by-rail accidents.
  •  Trains hauling crude in old tank cars – known for decades to be prone to punctures in derailments – will be slowed to 40 mph while moving through some of the nation’s largest metro areas, including the Twin Cities.

BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said the company runs its crude trains no faster than 50 mph across its network, and slower through many towns and cities. Its speed limit through Fargo and Bismarck is 35 mph.

The safety changes don’t address construction standards for the DOT-111 car, an older tank car model involved in the Casselton derailment, which spilled about 475,000 gallons of crude oil, and an accident in Quebec last summer that killed 47 people. There are more than 300,000 DOT-111s on the rails, 94,000 of which haul hazardous fluids such as crude oil and ethanol, according to the Railway Supply Institute.

While he commended the industry for taking steps to address safety concerns, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., highlighted the need for updated tank car standards in a news release.

The Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is in the middle of a rulemaking process that may require older models to be retrofitted or phased out of service, but that isn’t expected to conclude until sometime in 2015.

Hoeven also called for measures to ensure oil is properly classified – an issue federal regulators highlighted during inspections at loading facilities in the Bakken region in 2011 and 2012.

Fellow North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said in a statement that the changes were “a needed first step, but I’ll continue to make sure we seek to understand what caused recent derailments, and determine what needs to be done to limit the likelihood that they will happen in the future.”

BNSF, which hauls the majority of the crude moving out of the Bakken region, said in a statement it “strongly supports the new voluntary commitments to further reduce risk in the movement of crude oil by rail.”

Kyle Potter
Kyle Potter is an enterprise reporter at the Forum. He came to Fargo-Moorhead in May 2013 after stints at the Associated Press, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Minnesota Daily. 
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