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Regulators toughen safety standards for rail cars carrying Bakken crude

WASHINGTON — U.S. and Canadian transportation officials on Friday announced stricter safety standards for train cars hauling Bakken crude oil across Minnesota.

The new rules come as rare but catastrophic derailments of trains carrying highly flammable Bakken crude have led to explosions and oil spills in Canada, North Dakota, West Virginia and Illinois. The 2013 Canadian accident at Lac-Mégantic killed 47 people.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx told reporters that all tank cars hauling crude oil should have the new safety features in place by 2020. Tank cars hauling ethanol will all be updated a few years later.

While acknowledging that 99.9 percent of crude shipments arrive safely, Foxx warned that “It only takes one accident to create big problems for communities or a country.”

About six or seven oil trains pass through Minnesota daily, some in excess of 100 cars long.

Eventually the government wants those trains to use newly designed or retrofitted tank cars that have thicker steel, thermal protection, full head shields, top fitting protection and new bottom outlet valves not on current cars. Any cars built after Sept. 30, 2015 that carry flammable liquids will have to meet these standards.

Rules for upgrading existing crude oil tank cars to meet the new standards requires that the least crash-resistant cars get fixed first. The U.S. and Canada plan to reinforce 16,625 of the most vulnerable crude oil tank cars by the end of 2017, Foxx said. Another 27,000 cars will be retrofitted by April 2020.

Related: Fee proposed on rail cars that haul oil, other flammables

Besides adding thicker steel, heat containment and better pressure relief to tank cars, the governments want oil trains with 70 or more cars to have new electronic braking systems, a plan many in the railroad industry strongly oppose.

Oil trains traveling through urban areas will be restricted to speeds no greater than 40 miles per hour until they have upgraded tank cars. This will not impact on Minnesota’s major crude hauler, BNSF Railway, which has already voluntarily dropped oil trains to 35 mph in high-threat areas like the Twin Cities.

Other initiatives include “more robust risk assessment” by railroads of the routes oil trains follow. Also, railroads must provide specific points of contact for communities to find out about hazardous materials trains traveling through their jurisdictions.

Federal officials are still studying proposals to better stabilize the volatile Bakken crude before it is loaded into tank cars.

Foxx called the plan “workable” and “aggressive.”

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D.-Minn., who recently wrote to the Federal Railroad Administration asking for comprehensive action to improve oil train safety, said the newly announced rules, while “a good step forward,” should be implemented more quickly. “This is no time to slow-walk the rollout of safer tank cars,” Franken noted in a statement.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, said, “These new rules represent meaningful progress toward that goal, but more work needs to be done to better protect communities along rail routes.”

U.S. railroads, including leading North Dakota oil hauler BNSF Railway, have supported stronger tank cars for oil trains and applauded that part of Friday’s rule.

The Railway Supply Institute, a trade group representing tank car makers, called the timeline challenging but “appropriate.”

The big fight between industry and regulators likely will come over electronically controlled pneumatic braking systems, known as ECP. Government officials say that the 100-plus car trains that carry nothing but crude oil cannot stop quickly enough in the event of accidents. They point to a North Dakota crash where oil train engineers could see a derailed train ahead of them on the tracks, but could not brake in time to avoid hitting it.

Foxx called electronic braking an “incredibly important” safety feature now used by Norfolk Southern Railroad in Pennsylvania and Virginia.

But the Railway Supply Institute and the American Association of Railroads pushed back hard.

“ECP brakes do not achieve significant safety advantages in derailment scenarios as compared to alternative braking systems which are already being used and which present far fewer technical and logistical challenges,” the institute claimed in a statement.

If tank cars don’t have electronic brakes by 2021, oil and ethanol trains must slow down to 30 miles per hour, compared with up to 50 mph in nonurban areas right now.

In March, officials warned the Obama administration of massive congestion if oil trains without electronic brakes are forced to creep across Minnesota at 30 mph.


This article was written by Jim Spencer and David Shaffer from Star Tribune and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.