The National Transportation Safety Board called Thursday for federal regulators to take more aggressive steps to protect the public and the environment from oil spills and fires from trains, but stopped short of calling for a ban on transporting crude oil in tank cars long known to be vulnerable.
The NTSB, an independent agency makes recommendations but has no regulatory powers, asked the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to develop oil-spill response plans that account for the large volumes of crude oil now moving by rail.
It also called for regulators to identify routes for such shipments that would avoid population centers and environmentally sensitive areas. And it said regulators should make sure that crude oil, especially from North Dakota's Bakken region, is properly classified to reflect its higher level of hazard.
FRA spokesman Kevin Thompson said that the DOT agencies "agree that a wide-ranging approach is necessary to ensure the safe transport of crude oil."
"We have already taken action on these recommendations and many others," he said.
NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman noted a series of derailments involving crude oil trains since last year, as well as several incidents involving ethanol going back several years.
A derailment in July in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killed 47 people. Two subsequent derailments in Alabama and North Dakota resulted in no fatalities but spilled approximately 1.1 million gallons of crude oil, more than all crude oil releases from 1975 to 2012, according to federal data.
"The large-scale shipment of crude oil by rail simply didn’t exist ten years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up with this new reality," Hersman said in a statement. "While this energy boom is good for business, the people and the environment along rail corridors must be protected from harm."
While the NTSB has cited the deficiencies of the DOT-111A tank car in numerous accident evaluations going back decades, the minimally reinforced car accounts for perhaps two-thirds of the tank cars transporting Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to points across North America. Tens of thousands of such cars may need to be upgraded or phased out.
Separately Thursday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed his own set of improvements, including a hazardous materials fee on the producers and industrial consumers of crude oil that would help pay for rail infrastructure upgrades.
Chicago is the country's busiest rail hub, and many of the crude oil trains bound from North Dakota to East Coast refineries pass through the city. A number of other mayors signed on to Emanuel's proposal, including Sly James of Kansas City, Mo., another busy rail hub, and Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, where nearby refineries receive crude by train.
"As mayors, there is no greater responsibility than ensuring the safety of our residents," Emanuel said in a statement.
Also Thursday, the head of the leading railroad industry group told a gathering of energy and financial leaders that both trains and pipelines would be needed to haul an expanding domestic production. Many pipeline supporters have cited recent rail accidents in making their case for expanding pipeline capacity, but Edward Hamberger, the president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, said it's wasn't a simple choice between modes.
"Railroads and pipelines both transport crude oil safely and reliably, and each has a role to play enhancing our energy security and delivering energy to American families and business," he said.
According to the Energy Information Administration, U.S. production is expected to reach 8.5 million barrels a day this year, up from 5 million barrels in 2008. North Dakota accounts for much of that increase, and owing to the lack of pipelines, rail moves the lion's share of it.
"There is, and will be, plenty of crude for all modes to move," Hamberger said.