Jodi Ross, town manager in Westford, Mass., did not expect she would be threatened with arrest after she and her fire chief went onto the railroad tracks to find out why a train carrying liquid petroleum gas derailed on a bridge in February.
But as they reached the accident site northwest of Boston, a manager for Pan Am Railways called the police, claiming she was trespassing on rail property. The cars were eventually put back on the tracks safely, but the incident underlined a reality for local officials dealing with railroads.
"They don't have to tell us a thing," Ms. Ross said. "It's a very arrogant attitude."
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American railroads have long operated under federal laws that shield them from local or state oversight and provide a blanket of secrecy over much of their operations. But now a rapid rise in the number of trains carrying crude oil — along with a series of derailments and explosions — has brought new concern about the risks of transporting dangerous cargo by rail.
Local and state officials complain that they receive very little information about when hazardous materials are shipped through their communities or how railroads pick their routes. Federal interstate commerce rules give them little say in the matter and railroads are exempted from federal "right to know" regulations on hazardous material sites.
Under pressure to act, the Transportation Department said in February that railroads had agreed to apply the same routing rules to oil trains that they already apply to other hazardous materials, such as explosives, radioactive materials and poisonous substances like chlorine.
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This voluntary agreement, which takes effect in July, was among commitments that also included lowering speed limits to 40 miles per hour when traveling in large metropolitan areas, and providing $5 million to develop training programs for emergency responders.
Still, the railroads remain particularly secretive about how they determine the precise routing of their hazardous cargo. The rules that apply to that cargo, which came into effect in 2008 during the Bush administration, give railroads a lot of leeway.
Recently, resolutions seeking more information from the railroads have been approved in Seattle, Spokane and Bellingham, Wash., and are being debated by the legislatures in Washington and Minnesota, among other places.