The U.S. Department of Transportation on Friday ordered railroads shipping large volumes of flammable liquids to slow to 40 mph through major cities, a step regulators said would help protect the public from the worst consequences of a derailment.
The emergency order and other targeted steps follow five fiery derailments in February and March of trains carrying crude oil or ethanol in Iowa, Illinois, West Virginia and Canada, increasing pressure on regulators to finish new regulations for such shipments.
The speed restrictions, previously voluntary, would apply to older DOT-111 cars as well as newer CPC-1232 types built to a voluntary industry-designed higher standard. Both have proved vulnerable to punctures, fire exposure and other kinds of damage in derailments.
Additionally, the department recommended that railroads to tighten their inspections of train wheels and brakes, a measure it said could have prevented an oil train derailment last month in Illinois.
It also requested that railroads and their customers share more detailed information about the contents of trains involved in accidents with emergency responders and federal regulators and do so within 90 minutes of an incident.
And it proposed a change in accident reporting that would account for a number of oil train derailments that did not involve fires and spills. The department tallied 23 oil train incidents since 2013, most of which did not result in a spill.
In a statement Friday, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx called the number of accidents “unprecedented.”
“The measures we are announcing today are a result of lessons learned from recent accidents and are steps we are able to take today to improve safety,” he said.
Also Friday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it had developed new training materials for fire departments across the country and was supporting drills with federal, state, local and tribal governments.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have expressed increasing frustration with the time it’s taking for the Obama administration to complete its new regulations, which may happen in the next few weeks. On Friday, though, they largely welcomed the department’s actions.
“I wish the administration had released the long-overdue comprehensive crude oil by rail final rule this morning,” said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, “but these actions should help improve crude by rail safety.”
The panel’s ranking member, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., called the steps “a good start.”
“Ultimately, we also need the final rail tank car safety rule,” he said. “We must replace the outdated, unsafe rail cars moving hazardous materials through our communities and better protect the public as soon as possible.”
The rail industry’s leading advocacy group in Washington embraced some of the department’s actions, but called others “problematic.”
In a statement, Ed Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, said that railroads did not possess some of the new information regulators are requesting, nor were customers required to provide it.
The industry “anxiously awaits” the final rule on tank cars, he added.