Emergency U.S. Rail Rules Imposed After Quebec Disaster

U.S. regulators imposed emergency rules to prevent parked trains from breaking loose, responding to last month’s derailment in Quebec that killed dozens of people and raised questions about rail safety.

The order yesterday from the Federal Railroad Administration prohibits operators from leaving trains carrying hazardous materials unattended without prior authorization and requires employees to tell dispatchers the number of hand brakes used. It also mandates that workers responsible for securing trains participate in daily job briefings.

“While we wait for the full investigation to conclude, the department is taking steps today to help prevent a similar incident from occurring,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement announcing the order.

Regulators said they were responding to the July 6 accident in which a 72-car train loaded with crude oil rolled from a stop into the town of Lac-Megantic, causing the worst rail disaster in Canada in a century. Forty-seven people died in the resulting explosion, which also leveled about 40 buildings.

Railroads must comply with the U.S. order within 30 days, and violations will result in enforcement actions, the agency said. Under a related safety advisory issued by the FRA and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the regulators said using multiple crew members enhances rail safety and urged railroads to review their staffing for shipments of dangerous cargo.

Canadian Order

The U.S. agency’s move followed similar steps last week by Canadian regulators. Transport Canada on July 23 imposed its own requirements on setting brakes and now mandates that at least two workers operate a locomotive hauling hazardous materials.

Canadian investigators have said that not enough force was applied to the hand brakes to keep the train from moving. The train, which had a crew of one, was left unattended for the night near the town before the accident.

“Railroads will implement what has been issued by the FRA today and examine what additional steps might be appropriate to ensure rail continues to be one of the safest ways to move hazardous materials,” said Edward Hamberger, the chief executive officer of the Association of American Railroads, a Washington-based industry group.

The FRA order emphasized that U.S. rail transport remains “extremely safe.” In 2011, there were 20 reported accidents in which hazardous material was released out of 2.2 million shipments, according to the agency.

‘Potential’ Danger

“The Lac-Megantic incident demonstrates the substantial potential for danger than exists when an unattended train rolls away and derails resulting in the sudden release of hazardous materials,” the emergency order states.

The FRA also said in its statement that it will convene an emergency meeting of its Railroad Safety Advisory Committee to study whether further changes are warranted.

Union Pacific Corp., the biggest U.S. carrier, said it had no immediate comment pending a review of the agency’s directive. The Omaha, Nebraska-based company supports the FRA’s rail-safety efforts, said Mark Davis, a spokesman.

The new rules come as trains carry an increasing amount of crude from places like North Dakota, where oil production has boomed thanks to hydraulic fracturing, a drilling technique that coaxes fossil fuels from shale rock formations.

The Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd. train that crashed in Lac-Megantic was hauling crude from North Dakota to Irving Oil Corp.’s 298,800-barrel-a-day Saint John refinery in New Brunswick. The carrier is owned by closely held Rail World Inc. of Chicago.

Crude Oil

Crude-oil shipments are the fastest growing of all hazardous materials sent by rail, the order states. The number of originations have jumped by 443 percent since 2005. Transportation of corn-based ethanol has climbed by a similar percentage, according to the FRA.

The increase in crude oil shipments via rail makes any violations “a serious, immediate safety concern,” according to the order.

While the FRA said rail transportation was safe, it cited a number of instances in which it found railroads didn’t comply with existing rules for braking on trains.

“With limited resources, FRA can inspect only a small percentage of brakes and vehicles for regulatory compliance,” the order states. “However, even with its limited resources, FRA has recorded nearly 4,950 securement defects in the course of its inspections since January 2010, an average of approximately 1,483 defects a year.”

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