Administration's plan on oil-hauling rail cars faces several hurdles

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The Obama administration's proposal Wednesday for making oil-laden rail cars safer runs 203 pages and includes a host of new rules for carrying flammable fuels by train — but they come with caveats.

The most important caveat is that they're not final regulations, and it's not uncommon for proposed safety requirements to get weakened and postponed following objections from the industries involved.

What comes next is a 60-day period for accepting comments from the public and the various industries that will be affected by the Department of Transportation's proposed rules. Then the government has to issue the final versions and give the industries time to comply. It could take more than three years to fully halt the shipment of the most flammable liquids in the most dangerous rail cars.

The government's "comprehensive rulemaking proposal" also leaves two critical elements unsettled. The DOT offers three different safety standards for making new oil rail cars stronger — and asks for public comments on which one should prevail. The agency also offers several variations on rail speed limits, leaving that issue unresolved.

The new rules also would apply only to trains that include 20 or more tankers of highly hazardous liquids, leaving a loophole that worries TRAC, a coalition of Chicago-area communities active in the oil-by-rail issue.

"We need to examine these options closely," said Tom Weisner, the mayor of Aurora, Ill., and co-chair of TRAC. "It's vital that communities across the country weigh in … and demand that the new rules come down on the side of maximum protection for the public."

Growing concern

Concern over the hazards of 100-car oil transport trains has grown steadily since a crude-filled runaway train caused fires and explosions in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada, killing 47 people and destroying much of the town center. Other fiery wrecks followed in Alabama, North Dakota, Virginia and elsewhere.

Before Wednesday's announcement, regulators had heard from 61 municipal and state government entities, 13 members of Congress, 223 members of the "concerned public," more than 152,000 signers from environmental groups, as well as the National Transportation Safety Board — all of them supporting stricter safety regulations or urging the DOT to take immediate action to improve safety.

Under the rules unveiled Wednesday, all new rail cars for transporting oil and ethanol would have to be built to whatever design the government ultimately chooses beginning Oct. 1, 2015.

Rail car restrictions

The industry would be barred from carrying flammable fuels in the most vulnerable existing rail cars after Oct. 1, 2017, unless the cars have been retrofitted to comply with the new safety standards, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration, the two DOT agencies in charge of oil-by-rail safety issues.

The proposed rules also would require better braking systems, formal testing programs to verify that mined gases and liquids are properly classified and not overly volatile, the use of standardized criteria for selecting the safest routes for oil trains, and notification to state emergency response commissions about flammable liquids trains passing through their states.

A host of other issues — including safety standards for railroad bridges, tracks and parked trains — are being addressed in separate DOT rulemakings that aren't finished yet.