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Flames erupt from tanker cars carrying crude oil that derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia, Wednesday.


Oil Train Derails in Lynchburg, Virginia

Latest incident comes amid safety debate over rail transport of crude.

A train carrying crude oil derailed Wednesday afternoon in Lynchburg, Virginia, sending flames and black plumes of smoke into the air near a railside eatery and pedestrian waterfront along the James River. Approximately 15 cars were involved in the derailment of the train, which was en route from Chicago to Virginia, according to the train's operator, CSX.

The fire was extinguished, the area evacuated, and no injuries had been reported as of Wednesday evening. But the pedestrian segment along the James River would be closed for "an unknown duration," according to a city statement, and an unknown quantity of oil had spilled from several breached cars into the river. Investigative teams from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration were en route to the scene.

The Lynchburg incident is the latest of several oil train accidents in recent months. Earlier this year, Pennsylvania saw two derailments within weeks of each other: a CSX freight train carrying crude derailed in Philadelphia in January, nearly toppling into the Schuylkill River, and a Norfolk Southern train carrying Canadian crude wrecked and spilled between 3,000 and 4,000 gallons of oil in western Pennsylvania in February.

And in North Dakota last December, a train carrying crude collided with another, engulfing 21 cars in flames and spilling an estimated 400,000 gallons of oil. (See related story: "North Dakota Oil Train Fire Spotlights Risk of Transporting Crude.")

Specter of Lac-Mégantic

No one was injured in those accidents, but the rapid rise of oil shipments is raising fears of an explosive derailment like the one that occurred last summer in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. That accident killed 47 people and leveled the town's center. Train service through Lac-Mégantic resumed in December, but the town has banned the transport of hazardous substances, including oil. (See related stories: "Oil Train Crash Probe Raises Five Key Issues on Cause" and "Oil Train Tragedy in Canada Spotlights Rising Crude Transport by Rail.")

Last week, Canada rolled out tougher standards for shipment of hazardous materials by rail. Among other measures, it is tightening requirements for DOT-111 cars, a class of railcar known to regulators both in Canada and the United States to be vulnerable to leaks and explosion.

Newer or retrofitted cars are already being built to a new standard issued by the Canadian Transport Ministry in January that requires thicker steel and additional protective fittings. Those cars that do not meet the standard must be phased out or refitted within three years. About 65,000 cars fall into this category, and another 5,000 older, weaker DOT-111s are immediately prohibited from transporting crude in Canada.(See related story: "Illinois Village Leads Charge for Tougher Train Rules.")

New U.S. Rail Regulations on the Way

Pressure is on officials in the United States to take similar action. Rail transport of crude in the U.S. increased 44 percent from 2012 to 2013 alone, according to the Association of American Railroads, and continues to rise. Last week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx wrote that the Department of Transportation was close to completing a new rulemaking proposal, including an update of tank car standards.

Foxx also said he was requesting from the oil industry, and not for the first time, "all available results and data regarding the variability and flammability of Bakken crude." The composition and volatility of oil coming out of both the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and out of the tar sands in Canada is just one of many issues regulators are attempting to understand better as North America's oil wealth reshapes the rail industry.

Also at issue is a budget to enforce new regulations, a point Foxx made last week. In an emergency order related to securing unattended trains, issued after the Lac-Mégantic disaster, the Federal Railroad Administration acknowledged that it did not have the resources to inspect more than a small percentage of trains. (See related story: "Oil Train Revival: Booming North Dakota Relies on Rail to Deliver Its Crude.")