Feds get tough with railroad tank cars

New rules are designed to reduce the risk of fiery train crashes


BUFFALO, NY (WIVB) – Big changes are on the way involving the transportation of railroad tanks cars carrying highly flammable liquids, including crude.

It’s an issue that News 4 Investigates has been reporting for about a year. Many of the high-hazard tank cars roll through Buffalo and Western New York each day.

Long-awaited new safety rules in the United States and Canada were announced on Friday as regulators strive to reduce the risk of explosive accidents as both countries experience a surge in crude-by-rail shipments in recent years.

The regulations, which go into effect October 1, are in direct response to a series of fiery train crashes in the U.S. and Canada.

Thousands of older tank cars that are more prone to rupture will have to be phased out within three years. Some newer tank cars built to a voluntary standard agreed to by the industry in 2011 must be phased out within five years.

“Now the truth is that 99.9% of these shipments reach their destination safely,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, while speaking to reporters Friday. “The accidents involving crude and ethanol that have occurred though, have shown us that 99.9% isn’t enough.”

The new rules also require trains of at least 70 cars, including one containing the most volatile class of liquids, must have electronically controlled brakes that automatically stop all the cars at once. The braking requirement goes into effect in 2021.

The American Petroleum Institute, which represents all segments of the nation’s oil and gas industry, is weighing-in on the new rail rules.

“The safety impact of ECP brakes is marginal at best,” said API president Jack Gerard. “It is concerning that regulators did not select one of several alternative braking technologies that have much clearer benefits for safety.”

It’s been nearly two years since a train carrying crude oil derailed in the Canadian town of Lac Megantic in July 2013, exploding and killing 47 people. Since then, a series of fiery accidents involving oil trains have occurred in rural areas across North America.

“We can and we must learn from those events and improve our system,” said Canada’s minister of transport, Lisa Raitt, while appearing with Secretary Foxx in Washington, DC.

Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer D-NY, a vocal advocate of improved railroad tank car standards, said the new regulations bring good news and bad news.

“The good news is that the standards for tank cars are tough and provide certainty, but the phase-out timeline lets the railroads take too long to implement it,” he said.

There’s been a boom in domestic oil production coming from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota, Montana and Canada. Last year, railroads moved 493,126 tank cars of crude oil. Many of the rail cars roll through major metropolitan areas on their way to refineries on the East and West coasts.

“When it comes to shipping crude there is no such thing as an American fleet or a Canadian fleet. There is only one fleet binding us together,” Foxx said.

In response to the new rules, API’s Jack Girard said the new regulations “should be carefully examined to ensure each element adds to the overall safety of the North American freight rail network.”

“As we review these rules, the key question is whether science and data show each change will make a meaningful improvement to safety,” he said. “A thoughtful, comprehensive and data-driven safety approach is critical to improving on the 99.997 percent safety record of freight rail to reach our goal of zero accidents.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation provided the following summary of the enhanced tank car standards and operational controls for high-hazard flammable trains:

Enhanced Braking
• Require HHFTs to have in place a functioning two-way end-of-train (EOT) device or a distributive power (DP) braking system.
• Require any high-hazard flammable unit train (HHFUT) —a train comprised of 70 or more loaded tank cars containing Class 3 flammable liquids traveling at greater than 30 mph— transporting at least one packing group I flammable liquid be operated with an electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) braking system by January 1, 2021.
• Require all other HHFUTs be operated with an ECP braking system by May 1, 2023.

Enhanced Standards for New and Existing Tank Cars Used in HHFTs
• New tank cars constructed after October 1, 2015 are required to meet enhanced DOT Specification 117 design or performance criteria for use in an HHFT.
• Existing tank cars must be retrofitted in accordance with the DOT-prescribed retrofit design or performance standard for use in an HHFT.
• Retrofits must be completed based on a prescriptive retrofit schedule. The retrofit timeline focuses on two risk factors, the packing group and differing types of DOT-111 and CPC-1232 tank car.
• A retrofit reporting requirement is triggered if consignees owning or leasing tank cars covered under this rulemaking do not meet the initial retrofit milestone.

Reduced Operating Speeds
• Restrict all HHFTs to 50-mph in all areas.
• Require HHFTs that contain any tank cars not meeting the enhanced tank car standards required by this rule operate at a 40-mph speed restriction in high-threat urban areas defined the Transportation Security Administration’s regulations at 49 CFR 1580.3.

More Accurate Classification of Unrefined Petroleum-Based Products
• Document sampling and testing program for all unrefined petroleum-based products, such as crude oil.
• Certify that programs are in place, document the testing and sampling program outcomes, and make information available to DOT personnel upon request.

Rail routing – Risk Assessment
• Railroads operating HHFTs would be required to perform a routing analysis that considers, at a minimum, 27 safety and security factors and select a route based on its findings.

Rail routing – Information Access
• Ensures that railroads notify State and/or regional fusion centers, and that State, local and tribal officials who contact a railroad to discuss routing decisions are provided appropriate contact information for the railroad in order to request information related to the routing of hazardous materials through their jurisdictions.

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