Emergency Crude-by-Rail Safety Orders Take Effect

The emergency rules issued by DOT, including lowering oil-train speeds to 40 mph in urban areas, go into effect on April 20. They are in addition to rules expected to be released May 12 that address oil tanker car construction.
April 20, 2015, 6am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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 "(T)he new speed limit will apply to trains transporting more than 20 cars of crude oil and other flammable liquids, which includes ethanol,writes Jad Mouawad of The New York Times"The emergency rules also require railroads to provide detailed information about a shipment within 90 minutes of any derailment."

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) details all three emergency orders in its April 17 press release. The remaining order improves the "brake and mechanical inspections of trains transporting large quantities of flammable liquids." 

Critical of these safety measures for not going far enough was New York State-based Riverkeeper and San Francisco-based Forest Ethics who issued this joint press release:

“The emergency order only applies to a few dozen metropolitan areas nationwide and does not apply to most of the rail system used for oil-by-rail transport,” noted Sean Dixon, staff attorney at Riverkeeper. “It is not adequate to deal with the risk that trains may impose on people and the environment, does not take into account track conditions and crumbling infrastructure (including bridges over water resources), and entirely, explicitly, and incredulously ignores the majority of the nation – the smaller cities and suburbs and rural areas through which these trains travel.” 

These emergency rules are not to be mistaken for the more far-reaching rules that "were sent to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget two months ago," writes Mouawad. "They are expected to be made public by May 12."

The needs for the new rules are one of those rare subjects in the 114th Congress that have bipartisan support, and both Democrats and Republicans are upset that it is taking so long.

"The acting chiefs of two U.S. Department of Transportation [DOT] agencies heard Republicans and Democrats in the House Transportation Committee complain that rules on railroad tank cars and oil and gas pipelines had been on the table for as long as four years," writes Curtis Tate of McClatchy DC.

Sarah Feinberg of the Federal Railroad Administration and Tim Butters of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration noted that they have little choice but to work within a multi-step process that involves public comment, industry participation and multiple layers of review by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Tate elaborates on how long the federal process takes, comparing the crude-by-rail rules in the making with those involving positive train control, another rail safety issue, that began in 2008, noting that "the nation’s freight and passenger railroads are likely to miss the Dec. 31 [2015] deadline."

When the rules "are finally published, the new safety regulations are not expected to come into effect until 2017," writes Mouawad.

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Published on Friday, April 17, 2015 in The New York Times - Energy & Environment
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