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A Burlington Northern Santa Fe coal train arrives in Ft. Laramie, Wyoming July 15, 2014. North America’s second-biggest railway have come under government scrutiny and new regulations amid complaints about slow movements of those commodities.RICK WILKING/Reuters

New U.S. rules requiring railways to upgrade their brakes or run shorter, slower oil trains will reduce capacity on the rails and hinder shipments of other goods, BNSF Railway Co. says.

The U.S. Department of Transportation said on Friday that trains hauling flammable goods that are not equipped with electronically controlled pneumatic brakes must not exceed 30 miles an hour (48 kilometres an hour) and must limit the number of rail cars to no more than 69.

In an interview, a spokesman for BNSF said the rules will slow shipments of grain and other crops. North America's second-biggest railway – and its Canadian counterparts – have come under government scrutiny and new regulations amid complaints about slow movements of those commodities.

"What we are concerned about is capacity implications," said Mike Trevino, a spokesman for BNSF.

The speed restrictions, announced along with a set of new standards for tank cars that carry oil, ethanol and other flammable goods, will be in place by 2021, but only if the train does not have upgraded brakes. From 2023 onward, all trains hauling highly flammable goods in the United States must have electronic brakes.

Railways, which do not own the tank cars they haul, have welcomed the move to tougher tank cars, but say electronically controlled brakes are expensive and unproven. The rail industry estimates new brakes will cost $8,000 a tank car, and argues that placing locomotives in the middle or at the end of the train is an effective way to stop heavy trains.

Electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, developed a couple decades ago, control each rail car's brakes with an electronic cable rather than an air line. Advocates say they are safer because they are activated instantly, while reducing braking distance and allowing railways to improve capacity by running trains closer together.

BNSF, which is owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., first tried electronic brakes in the 1990s and is now testing the system on "at least" one of its coal trains, Mr. Trevino said by phone. He said the company had no information to share on the systems' effectiveness, nor when the test would end.

The tank car rules announced in the U.S. are similar to those unveiled recently by Ottawa. However, Canada has not issued any rules on electronic brakes.

Lisa Raitt, Canada's Transport Minister, said in Parliament on Monday that testing on electronic brakes continues in Canada. "We've agreed that those will be operating rules not attached to the tank car standard. That's the appropriate way to [proceed]," Ms. Raitt said.

A 2006 report by the U.S. Federal Railway Administration, an agency of the Department of Transport, found that electronic brakes reduce the chances of a runaway train, and lessen the odds and severity of collisions by reducing stopping distances by 40 per cent to 60 per cent.

Montreal-based Canadian National Railway Co. said it has concerns about the reliability of electronically controlled pneumatic brakes in winter, and believes compatibility issues would undermine its operations while delaying shipments. "Research has never made a safety case for ECP brakes," company spokesman Mark Hallman said.

Follow Kim Mackrael on Twitter: @kimmackraelOpens in a new window

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