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US rail sector mulls safety ideas for crude oil transport

WASHINGTON - As regulations to strengthen tank cars hauling oil hit bureaucratic snags, federal officials say railroad and shipping companies are taking voluntary steps to make crude-by-rail shipments safer.

In a conference call Thursday after meeting with industry representatives, Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said railroads, shippers and oil companies will spend the next month researching short-term measures to decrease derailments and fiery collisions like the Dec. 30 accident in Casselton.

Among the possible solutions, Foxx said railroads will consider cutting train speeds and re-routing oil trains through less-populated areas. The Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is still studying the composition of Bakken crude oil to determine its volatility and whether it has been properly shipped.

Meanwhile, oil companies and railcar manufacturers will look into improving their fleet of tankers, a majority of which have been labeled by the National Transportation Safety Board as being prone to punctures and explosions in train accidents. Earlier this week, the DOT announced a pending rule change to retrofit or phase out the older models, called DOT-111 cars, wouldn't be finalized until at least early 2015.

Back in 2011, the railroad and railcar industry voluntarily boosted safety standards for new DOT-111 cars - thicker shells and metal shields at the front end to protect against punctures. The oil industry expects about 60 percent of its fleet will be built to those standards by 2015, according to a press release about the possible safety improvements.

"The goal is to minimize the risk of derailments and prevent fires or explosions if a derailment occurs," Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in a press release. "The approach needs to be comprehensive and collaborative, and all three groups need to be part of the solution."

The national push to improve rail safety comes on the heels of several fiery accidents in the last year, including the derailment and crash just outside of Casselton on Dec. 30 and an explosive wreck in Quebec that killed 47 people in July. And the pressure has been strongest in North Dakota, where the oil-by-rail growth has been most prominent.

As oil production has boomed in western North Dakota, companies have turned to the railroads as their primary mode of moving oil. Crude-by-rail shipments out of the Williston basin, home to the Bakken oil fields, have increased from virtually zero in 2008 to almost 700,000 barrels per day last year.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kyle Potter at (701) 241-5502

Kyle Potter
Kyle Potter is an enterprise reporter at the Forum. He came to Fargo-Moorhead in May 2013 after stints at the Associated Press, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Minnesota Daily. 
(701) 241-5502