U.S. transportation officials said Thursday that companies need to come up with safer ways to transport oil on the nation's rail lines following some explosive accidents as crude trains proliferate across North America.
After a closed-door meeting with oil and railroad executives in Washington, D.C., Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the industry agreed to make some voluntary changes aimed at accident prevention within the next 30 days.
Topping the list are plans to analyze the risks of oil trains that in recent years began passing regularly through major metropolitan areas across the U.S., Foxx said. Railroads also will consider where oil trains could be slowed down, to lessen the potential danger along routes that pose the greatest threat to public safety.
"The industry, if they are motivated, can undertake preventative steps that will enhance the safety of the movement of these materials across the country," Foxx said.
The Obama administration is under increased pressure to take action after fiery accidents over the past seven months in North Dakota, Quebec, Alabama and New Brunswick.
Emergency officials in cities and towns across the U.S. have said they would be ill-prepared to handle any more such derailments, which revealed gaps in federal oversight of the rail industry.
Under current rules, shipments of most hazardous liquids including oil do not have to undergo the type of risk studies proposed Thursday. Those studies are limited to just a handful of radioactive, explosive and highly-toxic chemicals.
The rapid expansion of crude-by-rail has been fueled by booming U.S. production of shale oil, particularly in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota and Montana. Trains hauling 3 million gallons of crude per shipment to refineries go through hundreds of towns and dozens of cities, from Chicago and Kansas City, to Philadelphia and Seattle.
Last year, after a runaway train hauling North Dakota crude derailed and exploded in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, incinerating much of the downtown and killing 47 people, the rail industry adopted voluntary speed restrictions for trains hauling hazardous liquids.
Guidelines issued by the Association of American Railroads in August capped speeds at 50 miles per hour for trains hauling 20 or more tank cars of crude. It's unclear how the speed reductions proposed Thursday would be different.
Experts say the same high-grade qualities that make Bakken oil attractive to companies can also make it prone to ignite during an accident. Regulators have been analyzing that crude since last summer, and earlier this month issued a public safety alert warning that the light, sweet crude from the Bakken may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude.
North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven attended Thursday's meetings, along with other members of the state's congressional delegation. He characterized the results as a "step in the right direction" but said there was more work to do given projections for domestic oil production to keep growing.
"We're going to continue to move products by rail and trucks," Hoeven said. "It's got to be done right."
Railroads recently began pushing for retrofits to improve the safety of tens of thousands of older, defective tank cars that make up the bulk of oil train traffic. But oil companies that own or lease those tank cars have resisted retrofits that could cost $1 billion.
The oil industry contends defective track, train-on-train collisions and other matters under the purview of the railroads make up the "root cause" of accidents. During Thursday's meeting, American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard told Foxx that the focus should be on "keeping trains from going off the track," according to a statement from the group.
Government regulators declined to give a timeline for finalizing a pending proposal for tank car safety improvements.