WASHINGTON — The nation’s largest freight railroads agreed Friday to lower speed limits and implement other safety measures for trains hauling crude oil, in response to a series of fiery derailments.
The deal will not immediately apply to the smaller rail companies operating in Maine, but members of Maine’s congressional delegation and rail industry representatives said they hope smaller firms will soon sign onto the voluntary agreement.
The agreement between the U.S. Department of Transportation and larger members of the Association of American Railroads is a direct response to several explosive crude oil train derailments in Canada and the United States, the most serious of which killed 47 people last July in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.
The seven largest freight railroads agreed to slow oil train speeds to 40 mph near major cities, conduct at least one additional track inspection annually and install additional brake technology on oil trains, as well as improve emergency-response training and communications with track-side communities.
“Safety is our top priority, and we have a shared responsibility to make sure crude oil is transported safely from origin to destination,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement. “Today’s changes will enhance safety while we continue to pursue our comprehensive approach focused on prevention, mitigation and emergency response through collaboration with our partners.”
Crude oil shipments by rail in the United States and Canada have increased sharply in recent years.
Rail shipments of crude through Maine rose from 25,000 barrels in 2011 to nearly 5.3 million barrels last year as prices and pipeline capacity made it feasible to ship from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota to an Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick. The pace slowed dramatically, however, after the fatal derailment in Lac-Megantic near the Maine-Quebec border. By October, Pan Am Railways was moving one-fifth of the amount of oil than it was during the spring months.
Maine is not home to any of the major freight railroads participating in Friday’s agreement. Instead, the rail companies that have operated crude oil trains through Maine – such as Pan Am Railways and the now-bankrupt Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway involved in the Lac-Megantic disaster – are considered regional or short-line railroads.
A DOT official said Friday that Foxx has received safety commitments from the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association but those discussions are continuing. The details of any commitments were not available, however, and a representative from the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association could not be reached for comment Friday evening. A representative for Massachusetts-based Pan Am Railways did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Holly Arthur, spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads, wrote in an email that her organization expects other railroads, including the short-line members of AAR, to join the safety pact. Arthur added: “It will be up to each company to subscribe to the initiative.”
Members of Maine’s congressional delegation said Friday’s agreement was a positive step but called for stronger and broader safety requirements.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of the 2nd District said in a statement that he was pleased to see the voluntary adoption of safety improvements that lawmakers have been calling for.
“While the agreement is a positive first step, much more can be done to improve public safety,” said Michaud, who serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which oversees rail issues. “Mandatory safety improvements must be enacted for all rail carriers, not just the largest.”
Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District said she was disappointed that the agreement did not address recommendations released last month by the National Transportation Safety Board. Those recommendations included preemptive accident response audits of railways that carry crude oil and of the trains to ensure tanker car contents have been properly labeled.
“These voluntary actions represent some modest safety improvements but I’m disappointed that none of the NTSB’s substantive safety recommendations on these issues was included,” Pingree said in a statement. “Also missing was anything about Positive Train Control, which has been on the NTSB’s most wanted list for a decade and the railroad industry has opposed.”
Positive Train Control uses real-time monitoring systems and on-board technology to automatically control the speed of a train based on the safety standards for that section of track and to avoid collisions or derailments.
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