01/17/2014 12:49 EST | Updated 03/19/2014 05:59 EDT

U.S. Urges Railways To Reroute Oil Around Urban Centres

In this Nov. 6, 2013 photo, a BNSF Railway train hauls crude oil west of Wolf Point, Mont. As common as the mile-long trains have become across the U.S. and Canada, dozens of officials in the towns and cities where they travel say they are concerned they are not adequately prepared to handle an emergency, whether it is a derailment, a large spill or an explosion like those in Canada in July or another in Alabama in November. Railroad officials say that despite the high-profile accidents, transporting oil by trains is safe and that they also have crews stationed around the country to respond to emergencies. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)
U.S. transportation officials have asked rail companies that transport oil to look at bypassing major urban areas and reducing speed in areas where the public may be at risk.

Rail executives met with U.S. transportation secretary Anthony Foxx on Thursday to discuss issues arising from derailments and accidents involving oil transported by rail.

There is public appetite for a change in rail practices after fiery accidents over the past seven months in North Dakota and Alabama, as well as last summer's rail tragedy in Lac-Mégantic Que. that claimed 47 lives and the recent derailment and fire involving a CN train near Plaster Rock, N.B

Rail companies, including CN Rail, agreed to make voluntary changes within the next 30 days in the closed-door session with Foxx.

CN participation

Canadian National president and CEO Claude Mongeau 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."

CN listed a sound safety management system and strengthening emergency response capabilities as steps it would take to address concerns expressed about oil carried by rail.

It also said it would address the risk of older tank cars used to transport flammable materials such as crude oil “as quickly as possible.”

Rail and oil companies are being pushed to replace the older, thinner tanker cars that make up the bulk of traffic hauling oil and other hazardous liquids.  

Under current U.S. rules, shipments of most hazardous liquids including oil do not have to undergo risk studies to determine how likely they are to explode or catch fire. Transport Canada has recently introduced rules around testing crude. 

Shale oil believed more volatile

Much of the oil moved by rail in the U.S. is shale oil, with substances from the Bakken oilfields in North Dakota believed to be particularly explosive.

Foxx raised the issue of carrying out risk studies of flammable liquids before they are carried by rail. The most volatile crude could then be put in better rail cars.

Other voluntary measures that could take place include rerouting trains with more than 20 oil tankers around major urban areas and reducing speed in some zones. Railways have 30 days to report back on how that might be achieved.

However, a safety advocate said the proposed measures fail to address a crucial and longstanding problem: defects in many of the tanker 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."

Dissension among oil, rail representatives

A round of finger pointing after the meeting also exposed dissension among oil representatives and rail companies over who is to blame for rail fires and disasters, and how quickly the U.S. government should regulate.

A spokeswoman for rail company Union Pacific said it had set tougher standards for its own rail cars and was urging regulators to impose new standards on the industry, a process that could take up to a year.

Eric Wohlschlegel of the American Petroleum Institute blamed the railroads for failing to prevent derailments, and said regulators have to impose new safety rules.

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