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February 22, 2014

Railroads confront oil safety

BILLINGS, Mont. — Railroads that haul volatile crude shipments have reached an agreement with U.S. transportation officials to adopt oluntary safety measures after a string of accidents.

The agreement between the U.S. Transportation Department and the Association of American Railroads was obtained Friday by The Associated Press.

It calls for railroads to slow down oil trains from 50 to 40 miles per hour through major cities, inspect tracks more frequently and bolster 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 fuel, ethanol, that has also seen a spate of accidents as production has increased. It also leaves out tens of thousands of flawed tank cars that carry crude and ethanol and are known to split open during derailments.

Federal officials said they would continue to pursue longer-term measures to further improve safety. They also said they would use regular inspections to check for compliance with the agreement.

With no formal rules, inspectors would be unable to issue fines or take other punitive measures for failing to live up to the agreement.

“We expect for this to be a document that is fully adhered to, and are prepared to inspect accordingly and call out the industry as necessary,” Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo said in an interview.

The Association of American Railroads represents all of the major railroads in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and president Edward Hamberger said he expects all of them to sign on to the agreement.

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