The train that derailed earlier this month in Wisconsin and spilled 20,000 gallons of ethanol into the Mississippi River didn’t have a sufficient number of cars carrying flammable liquids to meet lower federal speed requirements.
The government set the new requirements this year in response to safety concerns about transporting crude oil by rail.
According to railroad shipping documents, the train had 15 tank cars loaded with ethanol, five fewer than would trigger speed restrictions set by federal regulators. Because it didn’t meet that threshold, the train was permitted to operate at 55 mph. At the time of the derailment, the train was traveling 26 mph.
Some lawmakers, environmentalists and community groups have criticized the speed limits in U.S. Department of Transportation’s rules, announced in May, because they only apply to trains that meet the department’s definition of high-hazard flammable trains. The train that derailed on Nov. 7 near Alma, Wis., did not.
Under the new rules, trains with 20 or more tank cars carrying flammable liquids in a continuous block or 35 cars dispersed throughout the train are held to 50 mph. They’re restricted to 40 mph within a 10-mile radius of 46 high-threat urban areas designated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The Wisconsin train originated in Minneapolis and was bound for Kansas City, Kan., according to shipping documents. Both cities are high-threat urban areas, and BNSF voluntarily set a lower speed limit of 35 mph, compared with the federal government’s 40 mph, in those cities.
Though the train was going 26 mph when it derailed, it met none of the criteria for those lower limits and could have traveled the same speed as a car on most state highways.
Amy McBeth, a BNSF spokeswoman, said the railroad was working with federal officials on the investigation.
There have been 10 notable derailments in North America this year with spills or fires, seven with crude oil and three with ethanol.
Key train speeds
50 mph: Trains carrying 20 or more cars of flammable liquids in a continuous block or 35 dispersed throughout a train.
40 mph: Trains meeting above criteria in 46 high-threat urban areas designated by the Department of Homeland Security.
35 mph: Voluntary speed restriction imposed in those cities by BNSF Railway.