U.S. transportation officials on Thursday pressed for companies to come up with safer ways to transport oil on the nation's rail lines following some explosive accidents as crude trains proliferate across North America.
After a closed-door meeting with oil and railroad 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. Railroads also will consider where oil trains could be slowed down, to lessen the potential danger in areas that pose the greatest threat to public safety.
"The industry, if they are motivated, can take 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, Quebec, Alabama and New Brunswick.
But a safety advocate said the proposed measures fail to resolve 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."
The recent accidents revealed significant gaps in federal 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 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 up to 3 million gallons of crude per shipment to refineries pass through hundreds of small towns and dozens of cities, from Chicago and Kansas City, to Philadelphia and Seattle, according to local officials and federal accident records.
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.
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 was uncertain 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 issued a public safety alert this month warning that the Bakken's light, sweet crude may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude.
North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven attended Thursday's meeting along with other members of his state's congressional delegation. The Republican lawmaker 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 thousands of older, defective tank cars that make up the bulk of traffic hauling oil. 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 railroads' purview make up the "root cause" of accidents. During Thursday's meeting, American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard told Foxx the best way to improve safety is "to keep trains from going off the tracks," according to a statement from the group.
About 70 percent of tank cars that haul crude were built before the industry adopted more stringent safety standards in 2011, according to API figures. As the fleet expands and more cars are built, that figure is expected to drop to 38 percent by 2015.
But the number of older cars is expected to stay constant at more than 25,000.
Government regulators declined to give a timeline on pending proposals for tank car safety improvements.