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DOT urged to take action after another oil-train accident

Earlier this week, Virginia was the site of a rather frightening train accident that now has safety advocates, federal agencies and members of Congress all calling on the Department of Transportation to expedite their safety efforts.

According to reports, a freight train carrying Bakken crude from North Dakota derailed as it was making its way through downtown Lynchburg on Wednesday.

The derailment sent three tankers cars, each carrying around 30,000 gallons of the notoriously combustible oil blend, into a local river and caused a large blaze. While no one was harmed in the train wreck, emergency officials did have to evacuate the surrounding area out of caution.

While you might think this was an isolated incident, it is actually the ninth time in the past year that trains hauling crude oil have derailed. In fact, several of these train accidents proved to be utter catastrophes, including a derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec that sparked a massive inferno that burned down 30 buildings and killed 47 people. 

In light of these accidents and the growing number of trains carrying crude oil across the nation -- often through populated areas -- the DOT is now being called upon to work as quickly as possible to introduce new rules calling for stronger tanker cars.

"Everybody is waiting on them and expecting some significant action," said one former Federal Railroad Administration official. "It's a front-and-center concern on the part of everybody in rail transportation."

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has informed these parties that the DOT is aware of the issue and doing its best to draft new tanker car regulations as quickly as possible. However, he also stated that oil companies have proven reluctant in handing over the necessary data and that he has only limited resources -- 50 total flammable liquid inspectors for the entire nation -- to devote to the task.

In light of this reality, and the fact that creating new regulations is an intricate process comprised of lengthy research and a prolonged public comment period, some safety experts have offered suggestions to make the railways safer in the meantime.

For instance, a former NTSB official sent Secretary Foxx a letter this week asking him to consider imposing a 20 mile-per-hour speed limit on all trains carrying oil through populated areas until the new regulations calling for stronger cars are fully implemented.

It remains to be seen how the DOT will handle this issue. We can only hope they start making the necessary changes sooner rather than later in order to protect both railroad employees and those who live in the areas through which this dangerous cargo is hauled.

Source: The Quincy Herald-Whig, "Oil-train wreck brings demands for more regulation," Alan Suderman and Michael Felberbaum, May 1, 2014 

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