Railroads that haul volatile crude shipments have reached an agreement with U.S. transportation officials to adopt wide-ranging, voluntary safety measures after a string of explosive and deadly accidents.
A copy of the agreement between the U.S. Transportation Department and the Association of American Railroads was obtained Friday by The Associated Press.
It calls for railroads to slow down oil trains through major cities, increase track inspections and bolster emergency response planning along routes that carry trains hauling up to 3 million gallons of oil each. Those trains travel thousands of miles from oilproducing areas, including the Northern Plains, to coastal refineries.
The agreement does not resolve concerns over another fuel, ethanol, that's also seen a spate of accidents as production has increased. Railroads and federal officials said they would address separately a design flaw in tens of thousands of tank cars that make them prone to rupture during derailments.
By taking voluntary steps, railroads will be able to act far more quickly than if they waited for new safety rules to be drafted and approved by the government, said Robert Chipkevich, former director of rail and hazardous materials accident investigations at the National Transportation Safety Board.
But he added that there's no way for now to enforce the industry's commitments.
"It's a positive step," Chipkevich said. "But certainly there's nothing to say they would have to continue following those practices. The only way you can enforce something like that would be for regulators to publish regulations and do periodic oversight."
Federal officials said they would continue to pursue longer-term measures to further improve safety.
At least 10 times since 2008, freight trains hauling oil across North America have derailed and spilled significant quantities of crude, with most of the accidents touching off fires or catastrophic explosions.
The derailments released almost 3 million gallons of oil, nearly twice as much as the largest pipeline spill in the U.S. since at least 1986. And the deadliest wreck killed 47 people in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec.
"Safety is our top priority, and we have a shared responsibility to make sure crude oil is transported safely from origin to destination," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in an emailed 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."
Since 2008, the number of tanker cars hauling oil has increased 40-fold, and federal records show that's been accompanied by a dramatic spike in accidental crude releases from tank cars.
While severity of recent oil accidents and their potential for even more serious consequences has raised safety concerns, transportation officials point out that over the past decade, derailments have decreased by 47 percent.
"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 Edward Hamberger, president of the railroad association.