With production booming in the Bakken oil field along the U.S. northern tier and in Canada, some experts say stronger rules to head off a catastrophe are long overdue.
In the latest crash, a CSX train carrying Bakken crude from North Dakota derailed Wednesday in downtown Lynchburg, sending three tanker cars into the James River and shooting flames and black smoke into the air. No one was injured, but the crash prompted an evacuation and angered local residents and officials.
There have been eight other significant accidents in the U.S. and Canada in the past year involving trains hauling crude, and some of them caused considerable damage and deaths, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Bakken crude ignites more easily than other types.
Members of Congress are urging the Transportation Department to work swiftly on new standards that would make tanker cars more rugged.
"Everybody is waiting on them and expecting some significant action," Grady Cothen, a former Federal Railroad Administration official, said after Wednesday's wreck. "It's a front-and-center concern on the part of everybody in rail transportation."
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has told lawmakers that regulators are working as quickly as they can to get tougher tanker car regulations written and approved.
But he said some oil companies have failed to provide the data he requested, and he complained that the agency within his department that regulates flammable liquids is understaffed.
"We have a million shipments of hazardous materials moving around this country every day, and we have 50 inspectors," Foxx told The Associated Press recently.
The cause of the accident is under investigation by the NTSB. CSX said it is cooperating fully.
NTSB investigator Jim Southworth said the train was going 24 mph in a 25 mph zone at the time.
On Thursday, crew used cranes and other heavy equipment to remove the cars. All of the train's cars were carrying crude, and each had a capacity of 30,000 gallons, officials said.
"This could have been a whole lot worse," Mayor Michael A. Gillette said, adding that local officials have virtually no say over railroad operations. "We rely on state and federal government to do the work that needs to be done that our citizens are safe."
Lorrie Saunders looked at the wreckage and said: "It was a miracle it didn't set the whole town of Lynchburg on fire."
City officials said about 50,000 gallons of oil was missing, but it was unclear how much burned up and how much spilled into the river.
City spokeswoman JoAnn Martin said there was no effect on the water supply for Lynchburg's 77,000 residents because the city draws from the river only during droughts.
Concern about rail safety grew last July when a runaway oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, near the Maine border. Forty-seven people died and 30 buildings were incinerated.
Canadian investigators said the 1.3 million gallons of Bakken crude released in the accident was comparable in combustibility to gasoline.
The NTSB has long recommended that the Transportation Department toughen its design standard for oil tanker cars. The cars are considered too easily punctured or ruptured, even in low-speed accidents.
"We are very clear that this issue needs to be acted on very quickly," NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman warned in one of her last acts before leaving office last week.
Also Thursday, former NTSB chairman Jim Hall sent a letter to Foxx asking him to impose a 20 mph speed limit on oil trains through all communities until tanker cars are made more robust.
Felberbaum reported from Richmond. Associated Press Writer Joan Lowy in Washington contributed to this report.