Responding to public pressure to act more quickly after a series of fiery train derailments involving oil shipments, the Transportation Department on Friday issued a series of emergency orders, including a 40-mph speed limit for hazardous materials moving through urban areas.
The emergency rules also require railroads to provide detailed information about a shipment within 90 minutes of any derailment.
Federal regulators are under increasing pressure from members of Congress and local officials to publish new safety regulations for the growing business of transporting crude oil by train. Those new rules, in the works for more than two years, were sent to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget two months ago. They are expected to be made public by May 12.
In a statement, Anthony Foxx, the transportation secretary, said that the boom in crude oil transportation “poses a serious threat to public safety.” He said the orders reflected “lessons learned from recent accidents,” adding, “we are not done yet.”
There have been more than two dozen derailments involving crude oil trains in the last two years, often resulting in explosions and oil spills. Safety officials have warned that tank cars are not safe enough to transport potentially flammable materials.
The National Transportation Safety Board said Monday that the new generation of crude oil tank cars must be better able to withstand the high heat and pressure from a crash or a blast. The safety board said that recent crashes underscored the “significant vulnerability” to fire of current tank cars.
The new regulations have been contested by railroad companies, oil companies and tank-car makers, who have pointed fingers at one another during the spate of accidents. Rail companies, for instance, said accident rates had gone down sharply in recent years and they should not be held responsible for carrying hazardous materials.
Starting next week, the new speed limit will apply to trains transporting more than 20 cars of crude oil and other flammable liquids, which includes ethanol. The emergency orders do not address the kind of reinforcements that should be made to tank cars, but those will be part of the new regulations.
Railroad industry officials said some of the provisions, like the speed limit in urban areas, were already in place. They pointed out that a 90-minute requirement to provide information could be problematic because it would force railroads to provide data about their shipments – like the testing of crude oil – that they are not required to have and that shippers are not required to provide.
“Overall, these federal provisions reflect the fact that moving crude by rail is a shared responsibility, involving a safety system of prevention, mitigation and response,” Edward R. Hamberger, the president and chief executive of the American Association of Railroads, said in a statement.
Once they are published, the new safety regulations are not expected to come into effect until 2017.