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Federal agency announces rule changes to boost railroad track safety

WASHINGTON - Another day, another new set of regulatory changes meant to make crude oil shipments by railroad safer.

Just after federal investigators urged regulators to make a handful of safety improvements, the Federal Railroad Administration on Friday announced several rule changes to boost the quality and quantity of track inspections.

Though the FRA has its own teams of inspectors, railroads largely inspect their own track. Federal regulations spell out how often companies need to examine their rails.

The FRA's changes announced Friday beef up some of those standards by requiring that all inspectors are trained and tested, boosting the frequency of inspections and adding extra detail to inspection reports. It also provides railroad companies with a four-hour buffer period to confirm a defect, which the FRA hopes will give inspectors time to cover a larger stretch of track.

The new rules won't take effect until March 25, 2014.

Combined with a set of voluntary steps railroad and shipping industry officials agreed to take last week and an ongoing review to update inadequate oil tanker cars, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said it's "absolutely" the right cocktail of regulatory changes to tackle the safety concerns as crude-by-rail shipments have increased more than four-fold in the last few years.

Those concerns were stoked by a slew of accidents in the past year, including the fiery wreck in Casselton, N.D., on Dec. 30 and a crash in Quebec last summer that killed 47 and destroyed much of the town of Lac-Mégantic.

Since then, federal officials have renewed a push to retrofit or phase-out the nation's fleet of DOT-111 tank cars - the most common car used to ship crude and other hazardous materials. For years, the National Transportation Board has said DOT-111s are vulnerable to punctures in derailments.

But Heitkamp said she's glad to see the FRA try to step in with measures that could prevent derailments in the first place.

"I think it's absolutely a step in the right direction," Heitkamp said. "We can't just be talking about the tanker cars and think that we're solving the problem."

In a statement, fellow North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven said the rule changes were "a good step forward as we continue to press for the smart, long-term measures that will improve rail safety."

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