U.S. regulators will require trains carrying large quantities of crude oil to slow down or install expensive braking systems, a controversial step aimed at reducing the frequency of fiery oil train derailments in North America.
The new rule was announced during a joint Canada-U.S. press conference in Washington on Friday, part of a series of regulations introduced nearly two years after an oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Que.
Transport officials from both countries also put in place long-awaited requirements for a transition to tougher, more crash-resistant tank cars within the next 10 years.
In a point of divergence between the two governments, Ottawa did not include new braking rules in the package of regulations it introduced on Friday.
Instead, Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said she had asked Canadian officials to "find a Canadian solution" that will harmonize with the new U.S. requirement.
The U.S. rules indicate that after 2023, trains carrying large quantities of crude and other flammable goods can only exceed 30 miles per hour (48 kilometres per hour) if they have the electronically controlled pneumatic brakes installed. Asked for clarification on whether ECP brakes would eventually be required in Canada as well as the United States, a spokesman for Ms. Raitt said the government would update its rail operating rules to "meet or exceed" the new U.S. rules.
A spokesman for Canadian National, Canada's largest railway, said the company has "serious concerns" about inter-operability and whether the technology will be reliable during Canada's harsh winter weather.
Safety experts have advocated for tougher braking rules, saying there is a risk that current braking systems will allow cars at the end of a long unit train to pile on top of each other if an accident occurs. Railways and rail car manufacturers say they oppose ECP brakes because they are costly and have not been thoroughly tested. Industry experts put the cost of installing ECP brakes on a rail car at about $8,000 or more.
The Association of American Railroads supported the tougher rail car standards but called the new U.S. braking rule "misguided" and said it would threaten North American rail capacity and service. "This is an imprudent decision made without supporting data or analysis," association president Edward Hamberger said in a statement. "I have a hard time believing the determination to impose ECP brakes is anything but a rash rush to judgment."
The tank car regulations announced on Friday set a 10-year schedule for railways operating in both countries to phase in the use of retrofitted or new tank cars for flammable liquids that have thicker steel, thermal protection and full shields at each end.
Safety experts have criticized the 10-year time frame, saying it will leave weaker cars on the rails for too long. Several explosive derailments in Canada and the U.S. in recent months involved tank cars that could remain in use for crude oil and other dangerous goods for another five years, according to the standards announced on Friday.
Tank car suppliers say it would be unreasonable to make a transition to the newest tank car model in less than 10 years.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx tied the new regulations on Friday to the "staggering" growth in the amount of crude oil that is being transported by rail throughout North America. That growth can largely be attributed to increased production from shale deposits in Texas and North Dakota, he said.
Crude from North American shale deposits is widely believed to be more flammable than traditional oil and has been involved in numerous explosive derailments in Canada and the U.S., including a devastating accident in Lac-Mégantic nearly two years ago. The July, 2013, accident occurred when a crude oil train slammed into the centre of the small Quebec town, killing 47 people.