IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Railroads Agree to Slow Down Oil Trains After Fiery Crashes

Changes come after crashes in North Dakota, Alabama, Pennsylvania and Quebec.

Federal regulators and the nation's major railroads said Friday that they had agreed on new voluntary measures to make shipping crude oil by rail safer, including rerouting trains, cutting their top speed and increasing inspections.

The agreement between the Department of Transportation and the industry’s trade group, the American Association of Railroads, follows a series of crashes and derailments in North Dakota, Alabama, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. A train full of U.S. crude that crashed and exploded in Lac Megantic, Que. last July killed almost 50 people, and a train that derailed and burned in Casselton, N.D. in December sent plumes of black smoke a mile into the air.

“Safety is our top priority, and we have a shared responsibility to make sure crude oil is transported safely from origin to destination,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in a statement. “Today’s changes will enhance safety while we continue to pursue our comprehensive approach focused on prevention, mitigation and emergency response through collaboration with our partners.”

The voluntary measures, which will be rolled out between March and July, include:

• Slowing trains carrying more than 20 cars of crude oil that also include at least one old-style tank car to 40 miles per hour as they travel through some urban areas. The industry currently observes a self-imposed speed limit of 50 miles per hour.

• More track inspections

• New braking systems that allow for faster stops

• An analysis to determine the safest routes for trains carrying more than 20 tanks of crude

• Enhanced training and planning for emergency responders

Oil train traffic has ballooned from just 9,500 carloads in 2008 to about 400,000 last year, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), because of increased domestic oil production. Much of the increase comes from the oil boom in the Bakken region of North Dakota. About 70 percent of Bakken oil moves by rail, in part because of limited pipeline infrastructure.

But with that increase has come an exponential increase in crashes and spills. About 1.15 million gallons of oil spilled from trains last year, according to data from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Material Administration. That’s nearly double the 800,000 spilled in all the years between 1975 and 2012, and does not include the approximately 1.5 million gallons spilled in Lac Megantic from a train that originated in North Dakota.

Critics say safety was pushed to the side as both the rail and oil industries sought to cash in on the domestic energy boom.

“Regulatory authorities in Canada and the United States all agree that the crude by rail boom has happened in what is a regulatory blind side,” said Anthony Swift, an attorney with the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. “There’s no question that nationally we need better protections for public safety when it comes to crude by rail.”

Today’s announcements, expected in the wake of meetings between oil and rail industry representatives and federal regulators last month, are meant to address some significant concerns in communities given the recent crashes.

“We share the Administration’s vision for making a safe rail network even safer, and have worked together to swiftly pinpoint new operating practices that enhance the safety of moving crude oil by rail,” said AAR President and CEO Edward R. Hamberger.

The industry has taken the lead on safety measures as federal regulators work to catch up.

Several railroads and oil companies have in recent weeks announced moves to increase safety by mandating the use of safer tank cars, known as the DOT-111. Last summer an NBC News investigation revealed long-known problems with the cars.

Read the original NBC News investigation into the DOT-111.

The industry has begun to produce a sturdier version, but tens of thousands of the older cars continue to transport crude and ethanol.

Canadian Pacific and Canadian National, the country’s two largest railroads, in early February announced they would charge higher rates to oil companies that used the older model cars. Two oil companies --Tesoro and PBF Energy -- also announced they would update their entire fleet to the newer cars by April.

This week, BNSF Railway, which owns the majority of the rail lines in the Bakken region, announced it would acquire its own fleet of 5,000 new tank cars, marking a change in the status quo. Normally, the shippers own the cars and the railways simply move them, giving railroads little control over the types of cars that move over their tracks.

The oil industry also said this week that in addition to participating in these safety measures it will step up testing and labeling of crude, which recent crashes indicated may have been more dangerous than previously known.

“Our common goal should be zero rail incidents,” said American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard. “We are committed to using the best science, research and real-world data to make measurable improvements to safety.”