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Rail Accidents Fuel Safety Push

Derailments of trains transporting crude oil prompt review of tank car integrity

by Glenn Hess
March 31, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 13


Eight months ago, a train loaded with crude oil exploded and devastated a rural Quebec community. Earlier this month, the mayor of that still-crippled small town came to Washington, D.C., with an urgent plea for U.S. government officials: Improve railway safety before another catastrophe occurs.

“We can’t let a tragedy like the one we experienced in Lac-Mégantic be in vain,” Colette Roy-Laroche declared at a press conference at the Canadian Embassy on March 11. “We need to investigate, find out what happened, and do everything in our power to make sure it never happens again.”

Last July, 47 people were killed when a freight train hauling 72 tank cars of crude oil derailed in the center of Lac-Mégantic, a town of 6,000 people located 155 miles east of Montreal. Several tankers exploded, igniting massive fireballs that incinerated the downtown area and forced some 2,000 residents to flee their homes.

The accident was a wake-up call for safety officials, who were surprised by its severity. Determined to keep them on task, Roy-Laroche and several other Canadian and U.S. municipal officials traveled to the U.S. capital, where they met with senior members of the Department of Transportation (DOT), which is considering ways to beef up the safety of freight rail transportation.

The group of mayors intends to keep the pressure on government officials. “We are in this for the long haul,” said Karen Darch, the mayor of Barrington, Ill., a Chicago suburb.

DOT has been working with the railroad industry to institute voluntary safety measures, including increased track inspections, slower speeds for trains hauling crude oil through large cities, and more training for emergency responders.

But the mayors are looking for stronger action by federal regulators. “It’s great if it gets done on a voluntary basis, but we know that’s not enough,” said Vicki May Hamm, the mayor of Magog, Quebec.

One of the key changes the group is seeking is new construction standards for the DOT-111 type of railroad tank car that is now commonly used to transport crude oil as well as other hazardous and nonhazardous liquids. For more than 20 years, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has warned that the DOT-111 tank car is prone to spills, tears, and fires in a derailment.

Stronger tank cars are used to carry pressurized liquids such as chlorine and liquefied petroleum gas. But the single-wall, thin-steel DOT-111 has been a workhorse since the mid-1960s, hauling a wide range of liquids, from corn syrup and vegetable oil to nonflammable hazardous products such as caustic soda and fertilizer.

In recent years, though, the tank cars have increasingly been used to transport crude from new oil fields, especially North Dakota’s booming Bakken shale formation. That area has insufficient access to pipelines, so about two-thirds of Bakken crude is shipped by rail to refineries in Canada and on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Trains hauled about 415,000 carloads of oil last year, up from just 9,500 carloads in 2008, according to railroad industry estimates. Each carload represents roughly 30,000 gal of flammable liquid, and some trains haul more than 100 tank cars at a time.

The marked rise in transporting crude by rail has been matched by a recent surge in tanker train accidents. In addition to the Lac-Mégantic disaster—which involved oil from North Dakota—nine other oil-train derailments occurred in the past year alone. The accidents spilled more than 1 million gal of crude in 2013, federal data show, compared with an average of just 22,000 gal a year from 1975 through 2012—a 50-fold increase.

The risk of shipping oil in DOT-111 tank cars has been heightened by the volatility of the crude being transported from North Dakota and some of the other shale plays, as the formations are called. Regulators recently issued a safety alert that the light, sweet crude oil produced from these areas “may be more flammable” than traditional heavy crudes because it contains more natural gas. As a result, the crude from these areas is nearly as flammable as gasoline.

In response to the growing fears about moving oil by rail, DOT began a rule-making process last September that is likely to result in new tank car standards, possibly including an order to aggressively phase out or reinforce all DOT-111s currently being used to move crude oil, ethanol, and other flammable liquids.

Cynthia L. Quarterman, head of DOT’s Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, told a congressional panel on Feb. 26 that her agency wants to issue a proposed rule on new tank car design standards “as soon as possible.” She declined to set a deadline for publishing a proposal or issuing a final rule, and observers say a final rule isn’t likely to come for another year.

The rail, petroleum, and chemical industries have committed to a safer design for new tankers. But until recently, both railroads and hazmat shippers pressed regulators not to require modifications to the tens of thousands of existing cars.

In October 2011, the railroad industry voluntarily adopted safety design improvements for newly built DOT-111 tank cars. At present, 92,000 DOT-111s are used to transport combustible liquids. Out of these, only 14,000 tank cars are compliant with the higher industry standards, which are based on NTSB recommendations.

Last November, the Association of American Railroads (AAR), a trade group representing the largest rail companies, called for even tighter safety regulations. The group asked DOT to require that the older fleet of some 78,000 DOT-111 tank cars be either phased out of crude oil/hazmat service or upgraded to better withstand accidents. Even the newer cars built after 2011 would require certain retrofit modifications under AAR’s proposal.

The redesigned DOT-111s should have thicker, more puncture-resistant steel shells; thermal insulation; pressure relief valves; and full-height head shields at the vulnerable ends of each car, AAR says.

“We believe it’s time for a thorough review of the U.S. tank car fleet that moves flammable liquids, particularly considering the recent increase in crude oil traffic,” says Edward R. Hamberger, AAR’s chief executive officer. “Our goal is to ensure that what we move, and how we move it, is done as safely as possible.”

Railroads do not generally own tank cars; they are owned by shippers and tank car leasing companies. Therefore, the estimated $1 billion price tag for retrofitting cars would be absorbed by the railroads’ biggest customers, which include oil producers and chemical manufacturers.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the American Petroleum Institute (API), two trade groups representing companies heavily reliant on tank cars, say DOT should focus its regulatory efforts on new tankers. They oppose modifying or phasing out existing DOT-111 tank cars.

Rather than retrofitting or replacing cars already in service, safety enhancements can be better achieved by improving standards for new cars, says Thomas E. Schick, ACC’s senior director of distribution. “Those existing cars would have to be cleaned and taken out of service, would have to undergo considerable physical changes, and would have fewer years of service over which to spread those costs,” Schick explains.

Hazmat shippers also argue that railroads need to upgrade their own practices. According to DOT, the vast majority of train accidents are caused by human error, track defects, and signal issues.

“Strong tank cars are an important part of the equation, but the first step is to address the root cause of rail accidents,” API CEO Jack N. Gerard says. “Prevention must be part of our focus by keeping trains on the tracks and preventing rail accidents in the first place.”  


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