Members of Congress who had pressed for tighter safety rules — including Senators Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven of North Dakota and Mark Udall of Colorado — welcomed the industry agreement.
It calls for railroads to consider using alternate routes if they can find ones that pose less risk. Experts say it's inevitable the trains would go through population centers to reach certain destinations.
Railroads agreed to provide $5 million to develop emergency responder training tailored to crude accidents.
Separately, federal regulators are working with the oil industry to examine the volatility of crude moved by rail. That's crucial in part so that responders know what they're dealing with when an accident or spill occurs.
The North Dakota oil involved in July's Lac-Megantic accident had been misclassified and ranked as a minor danger when it was in fact more volatile, according to Canadian transportation officials.
Companies are required to test oil to determine its flash point, or the temperature at which it can ignite. However, there are no mandated testing protocols.
The industry is working on new standards for testing that are expected to be completed in the next several months, said American Petroleum Institute president Jack Gerard. That should determine how frequently the tests are done, and also whether the potential corrosive nature of oil needs to be taken into account when deciding how to ship the fuel, he said.
Government investigators recently announced 11 of 18 samples of oil that was to be loaded on trains in the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana were misclassified.
Fines totaling $93,000 were proposed for Hess Corp., Whiting Oil and Gas Corp., and Marathon Oil Co.
Since 2008, the number of tanker cars hauling oil has increased 40-fold. Federal records show that's been accompanied by a dramatic spike in accidental crude releases from tank cars.
While the severity of recent accidents has raised safety concerns, transportation officials point out that over the past decade, derailments have decreased by 47 percent.
Hamberger of the railroad association said the industry has put a priority on safely transporting crude, and will live up to the agreement with the government.
"Number one it's better for safety, and number two their reputation is on the line," he said.
Lowy reported from Washington, D.C.