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FRA's new tanker rules already encountering legal challenges

Thanks to booming oil production here in the U.S., the nation's railway system has seen a dramatic spike in the number of tanker cars carrying crude and other hazardous liquids to distant refineries.

Unfortunately, this increase in railway tanker traffic has also resulted in an uptick in dangerous and even deadly train accidents. Indeed, there have been at least nine explosive tanker derailments since 2013, including a fiery six-car accident that occurred outside of a small North Dakota town just last week.

In recognition of this danger and the need for immediate action, the Federal Railroad Administration announced new rules on May 1 governing tanker cars carrying both crude oil and other hazardous liquids.

What do these new FRA rules dictate?

The rules set forth a decade-long timetable for outfitting existing tanker cars with new safety features, such as metal shields and steel jackets designed to prevent ruptures. They also dictate that trains pulling 70-plus tanker cars filled with flammable materials will need to be outfitted with advanced braking systems or follow certain restrictions (lower speed limits, total car restrictions, etc.).

It is worth noting that trains pulling up to 34 total tanker cars filled with flammable materials or a single block of up to 19 tanker cars filled with flammable materials are not subject to these rules.

How have the railroad industry and the petroleum industry responded?

As you might expect, neither the railroad industry nor the petroleum industry were particularly receptive to the FRA's tanker rules. Indeed, the American Petroleum Institute filed a petition in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia earlier this week asking for some of the rules to be set aside and remanded.

Specifically, the API's petition takes issue with the timetable for upgrading tanker cars, the braking system mandate and the restrictions for noncompliant trains.

While the railroad industry has yet to take legal action, it appears as if it's only a matter of time.

How have municipalities across the nation responded?

While municipalities are generally receptive to the new FRA rules, many have indicated that they perhaps don't go far enough. Indeed, two Illinois municipalities -- the city of Aurora and the village of Barrington -- filed a joint petition in the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this week asking for some of the rules to be set aside and remanded.

Here, the petition is challenging the "unreasonably long" timetable for retrofitting existing tanker cars and the exemptions that allow the older tankers to continue to be used. It also asks for greater transparency on the part of railroad workers when an accident occurs.

It will be interesting to see how the FRA, which previously indicated that the new rules will withstand any legal challenge, responds. Stay tuned for developments on this important story.  

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