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Firefighters in Nantes, Que., inspect a row of none oil tankers sitting on a railway siding there on July 10, 2013.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Railways carrying crude oil have agreed to look at alternative shipping routes that could avoid some U.S. cities and other risky areas after the deadly train explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Que.

A new voluntary agreement between the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Association of American Railroads, made public on Friday, says railways will also install new emergency brake systems, move more slowly through higher-risk cities, and improve training for local first responders. The changes apply to trains carrying 20 or more tank cars of crude oil and come after a series of fiery derailments involving crude oil.

A spokesman for Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. said he believed the agreement applies to the company's U.S. shipments, while Canadian National Railway Co. said it would aim to apply "the same, or very similar" guidelines to crude shipments in Canada as well as the U.S. However, rerouting options in Canada are limited, because most cross-country routes pass through major cities and building new track is prohibitively expensive.

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Last year, a Globe and Mail investigation showed how oil from the Bakken formation, which straddles North Dakota and parts of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, can be more volatile than crude from other regions, making it more likely to explode or catch fire in an accident. The train that derailed in Lac-Mégantic in July was carrying Bakken crude, which investigators said acted abnormally when it exploded.

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt has pledged to require emergency response plans for crude oil shipments by the middle of this year, but Canadian regulators have not developed rules or agreements on rerouting or braking systems. A spokeswoman for Ms. Raitt did not respond to a request for comment on Friday about the U.S. announcement.

Last month, Canada's Transportation Safety Board recommended more scrutiny of railway routes in Canada, raising the possibility of diverting oil trains to safer lines. The agency, which is responsible for investigating the causes of the Lac-Mégantic accident, also called for more stringent emergency response measures and sturdier tank cars for moving crude oil.

Other elements of the U.S. agreement would have oil trains using older-model tank cars operate at slower speeds when moving through higher-risk urban areas and increase the number of track inspections railways conduct each year. Railways that operate in the U.S. will have until the beginning of April to install the new emergency brake systems and the beginning of July to implement most of the other changes.

"Safety is our top priority, and we have a shared responsibility to make sure crude oil is transported safely from origin to destination," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in an e-mailed statement. "Today's changes will enhance safety while we continue to pursue our comprehensive approach focused on prevention, mitigation and emergency response through collaboration with our partners."

It was not clear on Friday how the voluntary agreement would be enforced. It did not address standards for the DOT-111 tank cars used to ship crude oil, which have design flaws that make them more likely to puncture in an accident. It also did not deal with rules for classifying highly volatile crude shipments, both of which the Association of American Railroads said are being addressed separately.

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