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U.S. presses railways to find safer alternative routes for crude-oil shipping

Smoke rises from scene of a derailed train near Casselton, North Dakota December 30, 2013.

Michael Vosburg/REUTERS

U.S. officials are urging the rail industry to consider alternative routes for moving crude oil after a series of fiery derailments in Canada and the United States.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said executives from North American rail companies agreed during a meeting on Thursday to assess whether routes for crude oil should be chosen with the same precautions used for particularly dangerous substances such as radioactive material.

Safety concerns about hauling crude oil by rail have been mounting since last summer, when an oil-laden train jumped the tracks and exploded in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Que., killing 47 people. A Globe and Mail investigation documented how oil from the Bakken formation can be more volatile than crude from other regions, making it more likely to explode or catch fire during an accident. The train that derailed in Lac-Mégantic was carrying crude from the Bakken, which investigators said acted abnormally when it exploded.

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Canadian National and Canadian Pacific both participated in the meeting with U.S. officials, and a spokeswoman for Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said the minister joined the meeting by phone. All three declined to comment directly on the issue of routing alternatives for crude Thursday afternoon.

The meeting was held less than a month after a train carrying oil crashed near Casselton, N.D., causing a fiery explosion. Days after that accident, U.S. officials issued a safety alert warning that crude from the Bakken region, which straddles North Dakota and parts of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, may be more prone to explosions than traditional oil.

In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, U.S. officials said the railways agreed to look at current U.S. protocols for moving highly dangerous goods by rail and consider whether they should apply to crude oil as well. Currently, rail shipments that are highly explosive, radioactive or poisonous by inhalation must undergo a detailed safety analysis to determine which route a railway should use to move them across the country.

"The industry is looking at the current guidelines for chemicals that are toxic by inhalation, which require restricted routing movements, and looking at whether these trains should follow those routes as well," said Cynthia Quarterman, from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The railways also agreed to consider new speed limits for stretches of track that are considered to be of higher risk, U.S. officials said.

All of the safety measures discussed at the U.S. meeting are voluntary, which means it will be up to railways to determine whether they want to apply tougher – and potentially more costly – standards to future oil shipments.

Mark Hallman, a spokesman for CN, said the company would work with other railways to advance the safety initiatives discussed on Thursday. He said CN is focused on improving overall rail safety, including by strengthening communities' emergency response capabilities and pushing for improvements to the DOT-111 tanker cars that are used to haul crude in North America. A spokesman for CP also said the railway is pushing for better tank cars. "CP attended the meeting and will continue to work with the administration and energy sector customers to identify safety enhancements," spokesman Ed Greenberg said. "Our railroad will continue to urge for an increase in the federal tank car safety standards."

Railways do not typically own the tank cars used to move oil and other products by rail. That means the cost of retro-fitting older cars or replacing them with newer models would likely fall to shippers in the energy and chemical industries.

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Representatives from the petroleum industry agreed to share information with U.S. officials about the content of Bakken oil, according to U.S. officials. U.S. regulators are currently testing oil from the Bakken region to determine whether shippers are following government rules that require them to test and classify the product before sending it by rail.

Edward McConnell, the mayor of Casselton, said Thursday that he has been lobbying for railways to take greater safety precautions since the rail accident occurred last month. Changes to the routes railroads take "would be the most drastic change I've heard of so far," he said.

Regardless of whether routes are changed, Mr. McConnell said the town of Casselton expects to see better safety measures. "They're going to have to step up how they operate. They're going to have to operate safer. And if that means going slow through town and checking the tracks repeatedly and checking their equipment, then so be it," he said.

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