Rail agency issues new safety regs

The Obama administration on Thursday issued a new set of regulations designed to prevent train wrecks along the nation’s aging railways.

A final rule released by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) stems from 2008 legislation, though it comes amid new calls for strengthened regulations following a string of recent derailments of trains carrying crude oil.

The regulations, to be published in Friday’s Federal Register, impose new standards for inspection frequency and recordkeeping, along with minimum qualifications for inspectors.

Previous rules required certain tracks supporting freight and passenger lines to be inspected for rail defects either every 40 million gross tons of weight that pass over, or once a year — whichever occurs first.

The new FRA rules hew closer to emerging industry protocol. 

The agency, in developing the rule, found that many that track operators have begun to implement a “self-adaptive scheduling method” for inspections. Under these systems the frequency is determined by several variables, including defect rates, the number of service failures between tests and the accumulated tonnage between tests.

“This final rule codifies standard industry good practices,” the agency announced in the regulations.

The rule sets new standards requiring training documentation for all operators of “rail flaw detection equipment” to ensure they are required to test tracks.

The rule also imposes new recording requirements for rail inspections, including documentation of every milepost tested, defects found and the steps taken to fix them.

Thursday’s action comes on the same day the National Transportation Safety Board warned of the likelihood of a "major loss of life" unless tougher regulations on oil-by-rail shipment are introduced. The agency's warning follows a spate of high-profile crude oil shipment accidents, most recently in North Dakota and Quebec.

The Transportation Department said last week that it would finalize new regulations by next year that would require stronger rail cars for carrying oil.