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.
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.
The problem has taken on a new urgency since federal regulators warned earlier this year that crude oil from the Bakken region in North Dakota, which is mainly transported by rail, can explode in an accident, like it did near Casselton, N.D., in December. Last July, 47 people were killed in Canada, about 10 miles from the border with the United States, when a runaway train carrying Bakken oil derailed and blew up.
Railroads are required to look at 27 factors before they determine the "safest and most secure" route for hazardous shipments. These include the type of tracks on the route, distance traveled, the number of grade crossings and the proximity of "iconic targets" like sports arenas along the way.
That information is fed into the Rail Corridor Risk Management System, a web-based program that examines alternative routes and ranks them. Tens of thousands of routes are examined in this manner every year.
The software, partly financed by the federal government, considers safety requirements as well as security factors such as the threat of terrorism, according to Robert E. Fronczak, assistant vice president for environment and hazardous materials at the Association of American Railroads, the industry's trade group.
But the system provides little transparency, and outsiders cannot find out why a particular route is favored, for instance. Railroads do not provide any information on their route selection, citing safety concerns.
And railroads are also allowed to consider the economic effects of their routing choices and how it would affect their customer relationships, which gives them additional flexibility in their choice.
Gary T. Sease, a spokesman for CSX, said the results of the program's analysis "are considered sensitive security information, and we are not able to share details."
Fred Millar, an independent rail consultant, said the system had not demonstrated that it reduced shipping hazards by avoiding populated areas. "The federal government has produced not one line of public assessment on the effectiveness of the law in reducing risk," he said.
Railroads are subject to periodic federal audits. But none has ever been fined over its choice of route since reviews started in 2009, according to Kevin Thompson, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.
Some analysts cautioned that rerouting was not always possible or even desirable. Brigham A. McCown, an administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration during the Bush administration, said a railroad may decide that a shorter route through a city may have better tracks, and therefore be less risky, than a longer route with older tracks.
"Rerouting may be less effective than some believe," he said. "The current concern is that the volume of hazmat is growing exponentially, and the question is whether the agencies have the adequate resources to actively monitor that."
Railroad officials said they provide local emergency responders with a list of the 25 most hazardous commodities transported through their communities. But the recipients must sign an agreement to restrict the information to "bona fide emergency planning and response organizations for the expressed purpose of emergency and contingency planning," a constraint that precludes them from making the information public.
"We feel the information is getting to where it needs to get," said Thomas L. Farmer, assistant vice president for security at the Association of American Railroads. "It should be on a need-to-know basis. Public availability of highly detailed information is problematic from a security perspective."
In 2005, the District of Columbia and a handful of other communities sought to stop the traffic of hazardous products in their city centers. But the ban was successfully challenged in federal court by CSX.
"It's hard for the regulator and industry not to become somewhat comfortable with each other's dance moves — like in an old marriage," said Reuven Carlyle, a representative in the Washington State Legislature and chairman of the House finance committee. "But you shouldn't have double-secret nondisclosure agreements. Information is not a luxury. Regular people have a right to this information."
The National Transportation Safety Board recently recommended that railroads "avoid populated and other sensitive areas" when shipping hazardous materials, something they are not required to do today.
Little oil was transported by trains just five years ago. Today, about 784,000 barrels a day of oil, or 11 percent of domestic production, goes on trains, according to the Association of American Railroads, and those figures are expected to keep growing in the next decade. Carrying mostly oil from the Bakken, these trains cross the country to reach coastal refineries.
Oil trains regularly run through Minneapolis and St. Paul, for instance, instead of using bypass tracks to the west, according to Frank Hornstein, a Democrat in the Minnesota House of Representatives.
Railroad officials say there is no need for tighter regulation. They argue that the industry has made big investments in recent years to upgrade tracks and that train safety has improved.
But critics say the federal government has been too slow to address the danger posed by these new shipments.
"There is an unwillingness to use any kind of enforcement power at the federal level," said Mike O'Brien, a Seattle City Council member who sponsored a resolution seeking greater disclosures from the industry. "The railroads have a lot of protections through federal statutes. That's the ongoing challenge we face as cities."
—By Jad Mouawad of The New York Times