EDITORIAL: Federal rules for oil trains finally get on right track

Federal transportation officials are proposing stronger safety rules for oil trains, in the nick of time, or so we hope. The plan, however, could still use some upgrades.

Soon, more trains carrying crude likely will be rumbling through California on the way to Bay Area refineries, so these additional safeguards can't come quickly enough.

Under proposed regulations outlined Wednesday by U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, railroads will have two years to retire older tank cars and replace them with cars with thicker steel shells, electronic braking and rollover protections.

As these older tank cars are used for nearly 80% of the oil shipped by rail and have been involved in serious derailments, the Department of Transportation ought to look at accelerating their phaseout.

Some environmental groups are calling for an immediate ban. While that may not be feasible, how long do we want to play Russian roulette, hoping the next derailment doesn't cause an explosion in a populated area?

The department also is proposing a 40 mph speed limit in all areas for oil trains with the older tank cars and in cities with more than 100,000 residents. Trains with new tank cars would be allowed to go 50 mph outside urban areas.

That lower speed limit, for example, would cover Sacramento and Roseville, but not Davis. DOT needs to revisit the population threshold. Why should the 25,000 people in Davis who live within a half-mile of rail tracks be afforded less protection than the 135,000 in Sacramento who do so?

In another positive step, DOT proposes to make permanent its May 7 emergency order requiring railroads to notify state and local emergency officials about any shipments of 1 million gallons or more of highly flammable Bakken crude from North Dakota.

Also, the agency said it is working on regulations for comprehensive response plans for oil train spills.

Local and state officials also have taken some steps to prepare for such incidents, but obviously it would be much better if there were none at all.

Because DOT has almost exclusive oversight over rail transportation nationally, states are very limited in what they can do on safety.

Federal officials, however, have been slow to act, particularly compared to their counterparts in Canada, who quickly imposed mandatory safety measures after a train filled with Bakken crude derailed and blew up last July in Quebec, killing 47 and leveling much of a town.

The U.S. has been fortunate that there haven't been deadly derailments here; these much-needed safety rules will help make sure that streak continues.