Ending months of delays and uncertainty, federal regulators Friday disclosed new rules for safer transportation of crude oil by trains, introducing a new tank car standard and mandating the use of new braking technology.
The regulations, more than two years in the making, come after a spate of derailments, oil spills and fiery explosions involving oil trains that have highlighted the risks involved in shipping large quantities of explosive material on rails through cities.
The rules state that the oldest, least safe tank cars should be replaced within three years with new cars that have thicker shells, higher safety shields and better fire protection.
A later generation of tank cars, built since 2011 with more safety features, will have to be retrofitted or replaced by 2020.
It is the second time in weeks that the Department of Transportation has announced new rules for rail shipments to instill public confidence. Last month, it set lower speed limits for oil trains going through urban areas.
There have been five explosions and spills this year alone, four in the United States and one in Canada. In July 2013, 47 people died in Canada after a runway train derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.
"I am hopeful the rail industry will accept this rule and will follow this rule," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said at a news conference in Washington.
He appeared with Canada's transport minister, Lisa Raitt, who said that Canadian and U.S. regulation would be aligned.
There has been growing pressure from local governments, members of Congress, safety experts and environmental advocates for federal action.
The question before the administration was to determine what level of protection the new generation of cars should have and how quickly to roll them out.
The new rules create a new standard, "high-hazard flammable trains," defined as "a continuous block of 20 or more tank cars loaded with flammable liquid or 35 or more tank cars loaded with a flammable liquid dispersed through a train."
By 2018, the rule would phase out older tank cars, DOT-111s, long known to be ill-suited for transporting flammable material. A newer generation of cars, known as CPC-1232, would have to be retired or refitted to meet the new standard, DOT-117, by 2020.
All cars built under the DOT-117 standard after Oct. 1, 2015, will have a thicker 9/16-inch tank shell, a 1/2-inch shield running the full height of the front and back of a tank car, thermal protection and improved pressure-relief valves and bottom outlet valves.
Regulators retreated from a provision that would have forced railroads to notify communities of any oil train traffic. Instead, railroads will be required to have a "point of contact" for information related to the routing of hazardous materials.
Some critics asserted after Friday's announcement that the regulations would do little to prevent another spill or explosion while older cars remained in operation.
On Thursday, seven senators, including Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., unveiled a bill that would seek to impose a $175-per-shipment fee on older cars to speed up their removal from service. Schumer said Friday's announcement gave railroads too much time to remove older cars from service.
"The good news is that the standards are predictable, but the bad news is that the phase-out time is too lenient," he said. "Our railroads are changing, and are getting much busier because of all this oil business, and they will have to adapt. They can't do it the old way."