Railroads that haul volatile crude shipments will adopt wide-ranging, voluntary safety measures after a string of explosive and deadly accidents, U.S. transportation officials said.
The pact calls for oil trains to be slowed from a maximum of 50 to 40 miles per hour through major cities, more frequent track inspections and better emergency response planning along routes that carry trains hauling up to 3 million gallons of crude each.
The new safety steps would begin going into effect in late March and be fully in place by July 1.
After a boom in domestic drilling in recent years, oil trains now travel thousands of miles from oil producing areas, including the Northern Plains, to coastal refineries and shipping terminals along the Mississippi River and other major waterways.
The agreement does not resolve concerns over another hazardous fuel, ethanol, involved in a spate of rail accidents in recent years. It also does not address an estimated 78,000 flawed tank cars that carry crude and ethanol and can split open during derailments.
The U.S. Department of Transportation said it would address the tank car issue separately.
By taking voluntary steps, the railroads will be able to act more quickly than if they waited for the government to draft and approve new safety rules, said Robert Chipkevich, a former director of rail accident investigations at the National Transportation Safety Board.
But regulators will have little leverage to enforce the industry’s commitments, he added.
“It’s a positive step,” Chipkevich said. “But certainly there’s nothing to say they would have to continue following those practices. The only way you can enforce something like that would be for regulators to publish regulations and do periodic oversight.”
Federal officials said they would continue to pursue longer-term safety measures and use regular inspections to check for compliance with the industry agreement. With no formal rules in place inspectors could not issue fines or take other punitive measures.
At least 10 times since 2008, freight trains hauling oil across North America have derailed and spilled significant quantities of crude, with most of the accidents touching off fires or catastrophic explosions.
The deadliest wreck killed 47 people in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Others have occurred in rural areas of North Dakota, Alabama, Oklahoma and New Brunswick. The derailments released almost 3 million gallons of oil, nearly twice as much as the largest pipeline spill in the U.S. since at least 1986.