Sandy Folzer, a retired professor in Philadelphia, said she worries about oil cars travelling alongside commuter rails.
"During rush hour, I imagine there are a couple hundred people on each train," Folzer said. "That scares me, that there's explosive material so close to where commuters are."
Proposals to route trains away from population centers are modeled on rules adopted after the 2001 terrorist attacks to restrict cargoes even more hazardous than oil — explosives, radioactive material and poisonous gases.
When the rules were being written, California regulators pushed their federal counterparts to include oil. But Transportation Department officials said they were "not persuaded."
Federal safety officials say it's time to reverse that decision, given the huge growth in tank cars carrying crude and ethanol, another flammable liquid involved in recent derailments and explosions.
The rules gave railroads broad discretion, and routing decisions are not automatically reviewed by regulators. But the Federal Railroad Administration is authorized to reject any routes found to be too risky. That has never happened since the rules took effect, said FRA Associate Administrator Kevin Thompson.
Even where trains can be re-routed through less-populous areas, critics say that simply shifts the risk to smaller communities with fewer resources to handle a fiery accident. Rural and suburban municipalities in Maine, Illinois and Vermont already have pushed back against the proposal.
In Hartford, Vt., Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg said it was "a fantasy" to think that moving hazardous shipments through rural areas would resolve safety problems.
John Hanger is former Pennsylvania secretary of environmental protection and now a Democratic candidate for governor calling for safer crude transportation. He's critical of regulators for suggesting that "lives are more precious in urban areas because there are more people there. That's an ethical, moral calculation that has to be avoided at all costs."
The routing rules in place for other hazardous materials list 27 factors to consider, including shipment volumes, nearby population densities and proximity to "iconic targets" or environmentally sensitive areas.
Rail companies weigh whether routes are "practicable" and consider economic impacts such as rail network congestion. While that can involve trade-offs, transportation consultant Steven Ditmeyer said railroads have made huge strides since the industry was deregulated in 1980.
"You cannot avoid the economic issues," said Ditmeyer, an adjunct professor at Michigan State University. "Because the risk is so high, the railroads do have an incentive to run a safe railroad."
But pointing to Lac-Megantic, he said, "sometimes they screw up."
Associated Press Writer Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia contributed to this report.
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