US proposes new rules to keep oil trains on track

The wreckage from an oil-train crash in Quebec last year.
The wreckage from an oil-train crash in Quebec last year.

AS MORE crude oil emerges from North Dakota’s Bakken region, the US Department of Transportation is finally taking steps to make sure it’s transported safety. The agency recently proposed a two-year timetable to phase out weaker tank cars, control speeds, and improve braking technology.

The new rules come after at least 10 notable oil-train derailments in North America since 2008, including the tragic crash that killed 47 people in Quebec last year, the spilling of 30,000 gallons into Virginia’s James River in April, and a recent mishap in Seattle that spilled no oil but occurred alarmingly close to the city. Bakken oil is a particular focus of concern. Saying that the crude coming from the region is “more volatile and flammable than other crude oils,” the department is deciding how thick cars should be and whether they also need rollover protection and electronic brakes.

With Bakken production soaring, from 9,500 carloads six years ago to 415,000 last year, the department should err on the side of safety. According to the Los Angeles Times, a third of the nation’s 98,000 tank cars may have to be retired. While policy makers wrangle over broad questions of the future energy mix and whether to build more pipelines, railroads are shipping vast quantities of oil right now, and federal regulators are correct to address the risks.