Analysis: Oil trains to keep rumbling through North America's cities

Wed Jan 29, 2014 2:33pm EST
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By Solarina Ho

TORONTO (Reuters) - Mile-long trains carrying crude oil will likely keep chugging through North American cities even after a string of fiery disasters spurred safety officials to urge that railways send risky cargo along less populated routes.

Re-routing the crude-by-rail trains that support booming North American oil production would be hugely difficult given the location of major rail lines and lack of alternatives, industry watchers say, adding that skirting major centers carries different types of risks.

"In the U.S., rail built the West. Literally. The railroad came first, and then towns sprung up along the route. And so as a consequence, rail transit's the heart of many of our cities and towns," said Brigham McCown, a former chief counsel at the U.S. Department of Transportation and former head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

"It's called the main line for a reason," he added.

The dangers of sending crude by rail due to increasingly clogged pipelines were highlighted last July, when an unmanned, runaway train carrying crude crashed into Lac-Megantic, Quebec, leveling the heart of the small lakeside community and killing 47 people.

Last week, the U.S. and Canadian transportation safety boards, which can only suggest and not impose new rules, recommended more rigorous route planning for shipping crude and other flammable liquids.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which urged that such shipments avoid populated areas, wants crude oil be added to a list of hazardous materials that already requires tougher routing protocols.

"We're not asking for new rails to be built, we're not asking for major modifications," NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt told Reuters.   Continued...

A tanker with an inscription which reads, "empty and inspected", is pictured on the rail track in Lac-Megantic, November 21, 2013. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger