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U.S., Canada Require Sturdier Tank Cars

Effort to make rail transport of crude oil and ethanol safer will affect chemical shippers

by Glenn Hess
May 25, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 21

A graphic depicting the engineering safety controls on a tank car.
SOURCES: Department of Transportation, Transport Canada

Long-awaited new safety standards for trains carrying crude oil, ethanol, and other flammable liquids, including a new class of rail tank car, will start taking effect later this year in the U.S. and Canada.

The two countries’ regulatory action comes nearly two years after a train carrying crude oil slid off the tracks in the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in July 2013, exploding and killing 47 people. Since then, a series of derailments, explosions, and spills have occurred across North America, exposing the risks of shipping large quantities of petroleum and other hazardous materials by rail.

“Safety has been our top priority at every step in the process for finalizing this rule, which is a significant improvement over the current regulations and requirements and will make transporting flammable liquids safer,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said at a news conference earlier this month.

“We know that 99.9% of shipments reach their destination safely,” Foxx said. “The accidents involving crude and ethanol, though, have shown us that 99.9% isn’t enough. It only takes one accident to create a big problem for a community and a country.”

Foxx announced the stricter standards in an appearance in Washington, D.C., with Transport Canada Minister Lisa Raitt. She said the two countries have “developed a harmonized solution for North America’s tank car fleet.

“We can never undo the damage that took place in Lac-Mégantic or in any other railway accident, but we can and must learn from those events and improve our system,” Raitt said.

Although the initiative is primarily aimed at making the transportation of crude oil by rail tanker safer, the regulation includes provisions that also affect the movement of ethanol. Those two materials account for 68% of the flammable liquids on U.S. railroads, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

Plus, the new regulation has potential application to the chemical industry, which ships a wide variety of flammable liquids such as styrene, methanol, and benzene.

The string of high-profile derailments in recent years hasn’t involved flammable chemicals, so the industry had urged DOT to limit the reach of the new rule to only large-volume shipments of crude oil and ethanol.

Those two products are each shipped in mile-long unit trains with as many as 120 tank cars hauling millions of gallons of a single bulk commodity. In contrast, flammable liquid chemical products are transported in smaller volumes in manifest trains, which carry a mixture of railcars—such as boxcars and tank cars—loaded with various types of freight, both hazardous and nonhazardous.

DOT says unit trains are more accident-prone because they are longer and heavier, as well as more difficult to control, slow down, and stop than manifest trains.

But the requirements of the 395-page final rule apply to all “high-hazard flammable trains,” which are defined as “a continuous block of 20 or more cars loaded with a flammable liquid or 35 or more tank cars loaded with a flammable liquid dispersed throughout a train.”

“The exact impact remains to be seen, but the rule has the potential for applying to the chemical industry,” said Scott Jensen, spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, a trade association of major U.S. chemical companies. These companies do not control train composition, Jensen pointed out. “That is solely up to the railroads to decide. It is certainly possible that our shipments will be covered by DOT’s rule.”

Although DOT has recognized the difference between unit and manifest trains, the rule presents challenges, said Jennifer C. Gibson, vice president of regulatory affairs at the National Association of Chemical Distributors, an industry trade group.

“The definition of high-hazard flammable trains could still potentially sweep in flammable liquid chemicals,” Gibson said. This concept is flawed, she asserted, because it subjects all of the cars to the same restrictions, not only those carrying crude oil or ethanol.

The new rule addresses several factors intended to make the transportation of flammable liquids by rail safer, including a new standard for tank car construction. All cars built under the new DOT-117 standard (TC-117 in Canada) after Oct. 1, 2015, must have thicker steel walls, more protection at each end, thermal insulation, and sturdier pressure-relief and bottom-outlet valves than current models.

Central to the plan is a requirement for shippers to begin replacing or retrofitting their existing tank car fleets in 2017. Four years later, these cars must have electronically controlled pneumatic brakes that stop them simultaneously rather than sequentially when trains are pulling 70 or more cars of the most hazardous cargo. This change is expected to prevent catastrophic accordion-like pileups in derailments.

The new-model tank car will be more puncture-resistant and less likely to leak and burst into flames if an accident happens. “This stronger, safer, more robust tank car will protect communities on both sides of our shared border,” Transport Canada’s Raitt said. The new standards “will not be cheap” but are necessary given the risks, she added.

For shippers in the U.S., the suite of new requirements is expected to cost an estimated $2.5 billion to implement over the next two decades, two-thirds of which will be used to retrofit or retire existing tank cars. Benefits from damage avoided once the standards are implemented range from $912 million to $2.9 billion through 2034, according to DOT.

Safety investigators have known for years that older tank cars known as DOT-111s are prone to rupture even in low-speed accidents. The new rule requires the DOT-111s to be replaced or retrofitted by Jan. 1, 2018, in the U.S. and by May 1, 2017, in Canada.

In addition, a later generation of tank cars built since 2011 with more safety features, called CPC-1232s, will have to be retrofitted or phased out of crude oil service by April 2020. Shippers of less hazardous flammable liquids, such as ethanol, will have until July 2023 to retrofit or phase out their fleets. In all, nearly 100,000 tank cars will be affected.

“We want to make sure we’re being aggressive with the least safe situation first,” DOT’s Foxx said. “The crude that we’ve been worried about over the last couple years will all be moving on either these new tank cars or retrofitted tank cars by 2020.”

But shippers contend that the aggressive timeline for upgrading tank cars now in service is unrealistic and may be disruptive to transporting their products to markets across the country. “We anticipate shipping capacity problems,” Gibson told C&EN.

For example, she pointed to the requirement to install new electronic brakes by 2021. “While these cars are in the shops, their owners will want to take care of all of the retrofits at one time, rather than putting them into the shop multiple times,” Gibson said. “This will create backlogs in the shops as others will not be able to get in for other retrofits and repairs. This will result in cars being out of service and backups in the rail network.”

Some shippers also say that efforts to enhance rail safety should begin with addressing track maintenance and human factors, which, when combined, account for the majority of derailments.

“Now that tank car specifications have been addressed, we suggest that it is long overdue for DOT to show similar concern for the root causes of train derailments: track integrity and human error,” said Brendan Williams, executive vice president of American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, which represents the majority of refiners that transport crude oil by rail.

“Keeping the trains on the tracks should be of the highest priority for DOT. The best way to mitigate an incident is to prevent it from happening,” Williams said. Federal Railroad Administration data show that there were more than 1,100 rail derailments in 2014, averaging more than three each day, with poor track integrity cited as the number one cause.

Members of Congress largely welcomed the new rule, but several have faulted DOT for not getting the most dangerous tank cars off the tracks faster. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) introduced legislation (S. 859) in March that would take the DOT-111s off the tracks immediately.

The new rule “is just like saying, ‘Let the oil trains roll,’ ” Cantwell said. “It does very little to reduce the threat of railcar punctures and is too slow on the removal of the most dangerous cars. It’s more of a status quo rule than the real safety changes needed to protect the public and first responders.”

Similarly, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he plans to sponsor a measure that would give shippers until 2017 to remove all DOT-111s, calling later deadlines a “reckless gamble that we can’t afford to make.”

Activist groups also argue that the rule grants shippers too much leeway by keeping the oldest, riskiest tank cars in service until 2018.

So far this year, there have been five oil-train accidents in the U.S. and Canada, but no fatalities or serious injuries. “It is luck, and only luck, that has kept rail workers, responders, and bystanders out of harm’s way,” said Todd J. Paglia, executive director of ForestEthics, an environmental organization. “But we are averaging a major oil-train accident a month. How long will our luck hold out?”  


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