Feb 25 (Reuters) - Rapid growth in moving oil by train in the United States, coupled with a spate of fiery crashes and derailments, has prompted U.S. regulators and railroads to consider new safety measures this year.
The Association of American Railroads, the U.S. railroad industry's trade group, and the U.S. Department of Transportation agreed on a string of safety enhancements beyond what is required by current regulations, the latest in a string of efforts to beef up safety and ease growing concerns as more and more crude hits the rails to be transported to refining markets. More enhancements are under consideration, including possibly more stringent regulations fortifying tank railcars from punctures or leaks in derailments and crashes.
Here is a rundown of enhancements agreed to or implemented so far, as well as recommendations from crash investigators:
TRAIN DESIGNATIONS, SPEED AND INSPECTIONS
* As of July 1, designate all trains carrying 20 or more carloads of crude oil as "key" trains, the same designation applied to trains that carry other hazardous materials that can be explosive or toxic.
* No later than July 1, railroads that operate so-designated key crude oil trains will adhere to speed limits of 50 miles per hour. If the trains contain at least one DOT-111 tank railcar that doesn't meet current safety standards adopted by the industry in October 2011, the train cannot move faster than 40 mph (64 kph).
* As of March 25, railroads will perform at least one internal inspection of track annually on top of inspections required by the Federal Railroad Administration on routes that include key crude oil trains.
* Also as of March 25, railroads will conduct at least two high-tech measurements of track geometry, including curves and alignment, every year on routes that include key crude trains. Current federal regulations don't require comprehensive track geometry inspections.
* No later than April 1, railroads will equip all key crude trains with better braking systems that allow use of emergency brakes at both ends of a train to stop it faster.
ROUTE PLANNING, SAFETY TECHNOLOGY
* No later than July 1, railroads will start using a high-tech routing system developed by the U.S. government for designated key crude oil trains. The system, known as the Rail Corridor Risk Management System (RCRMS), has been used for hazardous materials, such as inhalant chemicals and explosives.
* RCRMS was developed after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to protect urban areas from trains carrying the most dangerous hazardous materials. The system considers 27 risk factors including: rail traffic and population density; track quality, grades and curves; signals and control systems on the route; venues and iconic targets along the route; availability of practicable alternative routes; and past incidents.
* No later than July 1, railroads will begin installing more wayside wheel bearing detectors if not already in place every 40 miles along tracks where key crude oil trains run. These detectors sense the heat of railcar wheels and alert to potential failures. Some railroads, such as Kansas City Southern, already have the detectors in place in shorter increments, so they meet the new standard.
* By July 1 railroads will compile lists of emergency response resources to respond to large crude spills from crude oil trains, such as staging locations for equipment and community notifications. Railroads will share the information with the USDOT and to local responders on request.
* Railroads will continue to work with communities through which crude oil trains move to address concerns.
RAISING RATES, BUYING RAILCARS
* Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd and Canadian National Railway Co are charging shippers more for transporting crude in older tank cars that don't meet current standards adopted by the industry in October 2011. Canadian Pacific will add a $325 surcharge per older car, effective March 14. Canadian National has not specified how much its surcharge will be.
* BNSF Railway Co, a unit of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc is seeking bids from railcar manufacturers for up to 5,000 so-called "next generation" tank cars with safety features that exceed current industry standards, an unusual move for railroads, which own track and locomotives but not railcars. Shippers and companies that lease railcars to shippers own the cars. A BNSF crude train carrying oil in older tank cars crashed into a derailed grain train in North Dakota in December, igniting fires that burned for more than a day.
* Genesee & Wyoming has increased inspections and cut speeds of trains moving crude oil to 25 miles per hour after 25 railcars carrying crude on one of its 90-car trains derailed in rural Alabama last November, sparking massive fires. No one was hurt.
* The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has issued these recommendations:
-Require extended hazardous materials route planning for railroads to avoid populated and other sensitive areas.
-Audit shippers, rail carriers to ensure they properly classify hazardous materials and have adequate safety plans.
-U.S. authorities develop an audit program to ensure rail carriers can adequately respond to worst-case scenarios involving oil spills.
-Recommended in March 2012 that a phase-out of existing tank cars "may be the best option for the immediate future" due to challenges of retrofitting the existing fleet with more puncture-resistant systems, but added that the safety benefits of current DOT-111 industry specifications would not be realized unless existing cars were retrofitted.
* The Transportation Safety Board of Canada has issued these recommendations:
-The U.S. and Canada impose tougher standards for all existing DOT-111 tank cars, including those built to more stringent safety standards after October 2011.
-Railways be required to carefully choose routes on which oil and other dangerous goods are being transported in Canada and ensure safe operations on those routes.
-Emergency response plans along routes where large volumes of liquid hydrocarbons are being shipped.
(Reporting By Kristen Hays in Houston and Solarina Ho in Toronto; Editing by Chris Reese)