WASHINGTON — Responding to a series of fiery train derailments, federal regulators said Wednesday they will propose that trains transporting crude oil have at least two-man crews and requirements aimed at preventing parked train cars from coming loose and causing an accident like one in July that killed 47 people.
The Federal Railroad Administration had asked a freight rail industry advisory committee to make recommendations on whether two-man crews should be required, but the industry officials were unable to reach a consensus after working on the issue for months. Federal officials said they decided to move ahead with the two-crew member requirement anyway.
"Safety dictates that you never allow a single point of failure," Joseph Szabo, head of the railroad administration, said in a statement.
While existing federal regulations don't address how many crew members freight trains must have, the general practice among the largest freight railroads is to have a minimum of two crew members for trains while in service. However, regional and short-line railroads use single-man crews more often.
The crew proposal was prompted by an accident last July in the town of Lac-Megantic in Quebec, Canada. A train transporting oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota was left unattended by its lone crew member while parked near the town. The train came loose and sped downhill into Lac-Megantic. More than 60 tank cars derailed and caught fire, and several exploded, killing 47 people and destroying much of the town.
Since the Lac-Megantic accident, there have been other oil train derailments and fires in Alabama, North Dakota, and Canada.
The Association of American Railroads, which represents the freight rail industry, took strong exception to crew proposal, saying federal officials haven't provided evidence that two-man crews are safer than a lone crew member.
"If a regulation is proposed, then the least that can be expected is that a federal agency should back it up with grounded data that justifies the (recommended) rule," Edward Hamberger, the association's president and CEO, said in a statement. "To date, nothing but rhetoric and empty pronouncements have been offered to validate their claims."
Federal officials also said they will propose regulations that would prohibit certain unattended freight trains or standing freight cars on main track or sidings. The proposal will also require locomotive cabs be locked and reversers be "removed and secured." A reverser controls which direction a train can move. Removing a reverser effectively disables the locomotive.
Railroads will also be required to obtain advance approval from the railroad administration for locations or circumstances where it is permissible to leave unattended cars or equipment, the agency said.
The proposals aren't expected to be formally released until sometime this summer.
The railroad administration's announcement coincided with a Senate hearing at which lawmakers pressed Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to move forward as quickly as possible on an array of safety measures, including stronger standards for rail tank cars used to transport crude oil and other hazardous materials.
Foxx said regulators drafting new tank car standards need to know more about the volatility of the kind of oil being extracted in the Bakken region, but have received sample data from only three oil companies.
"We haven't received a robust sample from the industry," he said.
Regulators working on tank car standards are moving ahead "with absolute speed, but we need to know we are hitting the right safety standard," Foxx said.
U.S. crude oil production is forecast to reach 8.5 million barrels a day by the end of this year, up from 5 million barrels a day in 2008. The increase is overwhelmingly due to the fracking boom in the Bakken region, which is mainly in North Dakota, but also extends into parts of Montana and Canada.
U.S. freight railroads transported about 415,000 carloads of crude in 2013, up from just 9,500 in 2008, according to government and industry figures.
The oil trains, some of which are 100 cars long, pass through or near scores of cities and towns.
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