Video images of a fireball billowing from the wreckage of a derailed train hauling Bakken crude are adding to pressure on federal regulators to act on new safety standards for oil shipments.
While there were no fatalities in the CSX Corp. accident in rural West Virginia on Monday, the footage of flames and smoke rekindles public alarm over the prospect of tank cars rumbling through urban areas, according to a former U.S. Transportation Department official and a railroad consultant.
"It weakens the railroad's and the industry's ability to argue on the merits" to shape any government decision, Brigham McCown, a former chief of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said by phone Tuesday. "In Washington, D.C., perception is reality. Railroads have to get a handle on what's causing these derailments and they have to fix it."
Philadelphia-area refineries get oil via train from North Dakota's Bakken region.
The Transportation Department missed a target to produce comprehensive rules for crude safety by the end of 2014 amid lobbying from railroads, oil producers, and tank-car owners and makers. Now, the final regulations will be crafted amid fresh visual reminders about the flammability of Bakken crude, which often moves by rail because of a lack pipeline connections.
"It looks terrible. From a momentum issue, it's not good news," said Anthony Hatch, a former Wall Street railroad analyst and the founder of ABH Consulting in New York. "It brings that debate back to the front page."
Monday's derailment was the second in North America in less than 48 hours. Seven crude cars on a Canadian National Railway Co. train caught fire late Saturday near Gogama, Ontario, and the company's main line remained blocked Tuesday, according to the Via Rail Canada passenger service.
One difference between the crashes: The Canadian crash occurred just before midnight in a remote area, while the West Virginia derailment came in daylight less than 30 miles from the state capital, Charleston.
"This accident is another reminder of the need to improve the safety of transporting hazardous materials by rail," Christopher Hart, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said in an e-mailed statement. "If we identify any new safety concerns as a result of this derailment, the board will act expeditiously to issue new safety recommendations."
May is the new target to complete U.S. rulemaking, according to the Transportation Department, which has delayed regulations that Secretary Anthony Foxx once said he wanted in place before the end of 2014. U.S. and Canadian authorities began discussing oil-train upgrades after derailments including the 2013 accident that killed 47 people in Quebec.
In Monday's crash, residents near the town of Mount Carbon were forced to flee their homes in frigid weather. Leaking crude oil threatened the water supply from the Kanawha River. Ten months ago, a CSX train carrying Bakken crude derailed in downtown Lynchburg, Va., catching fire and spilling crude in the James River.