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U.S. eyes crude-by-rail safety in wake of Canada mishap

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. officials said on Thursday they were scrutinizing crude-by-rail shipments as they consider rules meant to prevent another tragedy like the runaway train that killed dozens in Canada last month.

Regulators began stepping up rail cars inspections over the weekend to ensure that train manifests accurately reflect the cargo, in an operation dubbed "Bakken Blitz" after the oil patch region around North Dakota.

"We need to make sure that what is in those tankers is what they say it is," Cynthia Quarterman, administrator of the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, told reporters.

Highly combustible, light crude from the Bakken region is particularly dangerous, Quarterman said, and inspectors will make sure the fuel is properly labeled and handled with care.

Officials want to make certain that those responsible for the shipments know how dangerous their cargo is.

"The flashpoint needs to be taken into account," Quarterman said, referring to the combustibility of flammable liquids that can vary according to the type of crude.

Quarterman declined to say how many technicians are performing the spot review of crude coming from the Bakken region or give any other details, but she said draft rules to increase safety on the tracks should come in a matter of weeks.

Nearly seven weeks after the July 6 disaster that left 47 people dead, U.S. industry officials met to weigh what those rules should look like. The Quebec tragedy was trigged when a parked train carrying crude oil broke loose, crashed into the town of Lac-Megantic, and exploded into a fireball.

It was North America's worst rail disaster in two decades.

The Federal Railroad Administration earlier this month ordered rail cars carrying hazardous materials not be left unattended on main tracks or adjacent tracks unless specifically authorized.

Rail operators were told to boost their safety procedures and record-keeping for trains that carry hazardous material and are braked.

Train shipments of crude oil have increased in recent years alongside production in both the United States and Canada and the energy sector has so far accepted safety steps that are not expected to disrupt the crude-by-rail trend.

"Regulations governing (securing) unattended trains have been in place for more than a decade," Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo said. "But we must always do better."

(Reporting By Patrick Rucker; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick)

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