DOT proposal to lower speed of oil trains would exclude smaller cities

McClatchy Washington BureauJuly 23, 2014 

The U.S. Department of Transporation’s plan to slow crude oil trains with older tank cars in urban areas would not apply to some of the cities where derailments have occurred or where officials and residents are worried they might.

The proposed rule on train speeds would require a 40 mph speed restriction in cities with more than 100,000 residents when a train contains any tank cars not meeting new safety requirements.

But DOT would measure city poulation by municipal boundaries, rather than metropolitan statistical area.

Such criteria would exclude Lynchburg, Va., population 78,000, the site of an April 30 crude oil train derailment where three tank cars fell into the James River. One of them breached, and the oil caught fire, prompting an evacuation of the city’s business district.

It would exclude Albany, N.Y., population 98,000, which has become a major transfer point for crude oil from rail to barge. Citing concerns about a string of oil train accidents, Albany County placed a moratorium on the expansion of such facilities earlier this year.

It also would exclude Bellingham, Wash., population 82,000, and Davis, Calif., population 66,000, both university towns where local officials and residents have expressed concerns about the safety and health impacts of increased crude oil shipments on rail lines that run through the community.

And to be sure, it would exclude Aliceville, Ala., and Casselton, N.D., which each have 2,400 residents who escaped serious harm when crude oil trains derailed in the past year, causing massive spills and fires.

DOT has set a 60-day public comment period for its proposals, and that may offer smaller cities a chance to weigh in. The rules the department proposed Wednesday reflect 152,000 comments it received.

Kevin Thompson, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, called public participation an essential part of the rulemaking process and said that the agency takes public comments seriously.

Crude oil trains are already restricted to 40 mph in 46 “High Threat Urban Areas” defined by the Department of Homeland Security, but many trains are going slower than that already.

For example, the Alton & Southern, a switching railroad in East St. Louis, Ill., has a maximum operating speed of 30 mph over its 22 miles of track. The railroad handles an average of 20 loaded crude oil trains a week, according to documents obtained through a state open records request.

Some local officials question the effectiveness of the speed restrictions.

Karen Darch, the village president of Barrington, Ill., who’s been a vocal advocate for rail safety improvements, noted that crude oil and ethanol trains have derailed at lower speeds than those DOT proposes.

Darch’s suburban Chicago community is criscrossed by busy rail lines that intersect with streets, and she said that lower train speeds could increase wait times at rail crossings for motorists and delay emergency vehicles.

“As we’ve found with this issue,” Darch said, “the devil is always in the details.”

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