Five days after federal regulators announced strict new rules for the tank car trains that hauled more than 490,000 loads of oil last year, a train derailed and burst into flames Wednesday, forcing the evacuation of a North Dakota town.
“The town of Heimdal is being evacuated,” said Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration. “Today’s incident is yet another reminder of why we issued a significant, comprehensive rule aimed at improving the safe transport of high hazard flammable liquids.”
At least six of the cars burst into flames, creating a plume of acrid black smoke. Nearby farms and Heimdal, an unincorporated town of several dozen people, were evacuated.
Feinberg dispatched a team of FRA investigators to the scene of the fifth major derailment of an oil train in North America this year. In two other cases in the United States, and one in Canada, a massive fire resulted.
All of the derailments have taken place in remote, rural regions of the country. But lawmakers and the Obama administration, with Feinberg taking the lead, are fearful that one of the trains could jump the tracks and explode in a major urban area. For example, dozens of them pass through Chicago as they make their way from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Montana to refineries in East Coast cities.
The Transportation Department on Friday announced a series of new rules for tank car design and the trains that pull them.
The rules require that tank cars be manufactured or retrofitted with an outer metal jacket that makes them less prone to leak in a derailment, and that trains be equipped with new braking systems to prevent “accordion-like” pileups in derailments.
Trains with 70 or more tank cars are required to slow to 40 mph in “high-threat” urban areas, and railroads must take into consideration 27 safety factors — including the quality of track maintenance and the rail bed’s grade and curvature — in selecting routes for tank-car trains.
The Association of American Railroads welcomed the new rules Friday, saying it supported an “aggressive retrofit or replacement program.” But this week, some railroad executives were less laudatory of the rule.
Norfolk Southern chief executive Charles W. “Wick” Moorman told the Wall Street Journal that the Transportation Department “made some serious mistakes in the regulations.” He said that they would make shipping oil by rail too expensive and that they would face challenges by the railroad industry.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) took note that another fiery derailment coincided with the railroad industry’s push back against some of the new regulations.
“It’s ironic that on the same day the industry announces their effort to derail federal rules, this happens yet again,” Schumer said. “Now isn’t the time to delay a solution — it’s time to speed it up, which is exactly what our bill would do.”
Schumer said Friday that the Transportation Department was not moving fast enough to implement the new rules. On Monday, he introduced a bill that would require all older model tank cars be removed from service within two years, rather than by 2023. He also wants the Transportation Department to set volatility standards for oil being transported and additional speed restrictions as trains pass through communities.
Wednesday’s accident happened when a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway oil tanker derailed around 7:30 a.m. Several fire departments responded. A statement released by BNSF said the burning tank cars were unjacketed CPC-1232 models that are to be phased out.
“Initial reports from the crew indicate there are no injuries but a fire has been reported at the scene,” BNSF said.