Regulatory action by U.S. and Canadian federal transportation agencies quickly followed the July 2013 fire in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that involved railroad tank cars filled with petroleum crude oil. Forty-seven people were killed. But both agencies continue to wrestle with the key, and thus far intractable, issue raised by this incident: whether they should require retrofitting of existing DOT-111 tank cars to make them more resistant to breaches during derailments. The National Transportation Safety Board has identified the DOT-111 design’s vulnerability several times in accident investigations during the past 20 years, including in safety recommendations the board issued in 2012 following the June 2009 derailment of a Canadian National Railway Company freight train carrying denatured fuel ethanol in Cherry Valley, Ill.
Canadian Minister of Transport Lisa Raitt announced proposed regulatory changes in January 2014 that will require new DOT-111 tank cars to be built with thicker steel and top fitting and head shield protection. In the United States, as well, DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking in September 2013 asking stakeholders for comments about enhancing standards for DOT-111 tank cars that are used to transport Packing Group I (materials posing great danger ) and II (medium danger) hazardous materials. While the Association of American Railroads urged PHMSA to raise those standards and to require about 78,000 older tank cars used to transport flammable liquids to be retrofitted or phased out, many other commenters firmly opposed the retrofit.
The American Chemistry Council’s comment urged PHMSA to “expedite a federal standard for new tank cars that carry petroleum and ethanol.”
“In general, safety improvements are achieved more efficiently through improving standards for new cars, in comparison to retrofitting or replacement of cars that are already in service,” ACC Senior Director – Distribution Thomas E. Schick’s comment added. “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 such costs.”
The comment filed by Lynn Hiser, president of the North American Freight Car Association–its members are owners, manufacturers, lessors, and lessees of private railcars–said a retrofit may not be feasible. If PHMSA does order a retrofit, Hiser urged the agency to phase it in over 10 years or more. Hiser pointed out that railroads don’t provide tank railcars. Instead, they require shippers to supply their own tank cars that comply with applicable PHMSA and Federal Railroad Administration regulations and standards, which allow a 50-year service life for tank cars. This practice means the considerable cost of retrofitting thousands of older DOT-111 cars would fall to the railroads’ customers rather than the railroads themselves.
The comment from Solvay USA Inc.’s Donna Edminster, manager of transportation safety & security, asked PHMSA to limit the scope of the proposed improvements to DOT-111tank cars transporting ethanol and crude oil. Solvay USA mainly uses DOT-111 cars to ship corrosive materials (sulfuric acid and spent sulfuric acid), and the proposed enhancements in the retrofit would not increase the safety of those cars, she wrote. “And increasing the statutory weight of the car to 286,000 [pounds] to allow for the thicker head & shells and half-height shields won’t necessarily give the shipper the additional payload promised. We already have a fleet of cars that we run at 286K which were constructed under special permit. However, many of these cars are under-utilized and not running at 286K due to the fact that some tracks, and in particular bridges and culverts, cannot handle the increased weight of the cars, nor can the internal track on customer sites,” her comment stated. “So we end up light loading 286K cars. Additionally, while they may be able to handle the increased weight cars, some major Class 1 railroads historically have been averse to handling the heavier cars on their lines altogether. Due to this fact alone, we estimate that 75% of our rail customers are not able to be supplied using 286K cars. Therefore, it’s not just a rail car enhancement issue; it also becomes a rail infrastructure issue.”
Freight Rail’s Excellent Safety Record The backdrop for this debate is a freight railroad industry with an excellent safety record and the sharp increase in crude oil shipments by train from the Bakken oilfields in North Dakota. U.S. railroads moved 178,000 carloads of crude oil during the first half of 2013; annual crude shipments from the Bakken region increased from 500 carloads to more than 13,000 and are expected to grow to 70,000, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a July 22, 2013, letter asking the FRA and PHMSA administrators to consider including the retrofit or phase-out of older DOT-111 tank cars in the PHMSA rulemaking.
Speaking in August 2013 during an emergency meeting of FRA’s Railroad Safety Advisory Committee prompted by the Lac-Mégantic accident, Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo said “less than a fraction of 1 percent” of the 2.47 million rail hazmat shipments in 2012 were involved in a spill.
“Although safety is trending in a very positive direction in the United States, in recent years we’ve still seen some very serious accidents,” Szabo added. He cited three derailments of trains carrying ethanol and also the January 2005 chlorine spill when a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in Graniteville, S.C.
The non-regulatory actions taken by FRA and PHMSA after Lac-Mégantic include:
- Emergency Order No. 28. Issued Aug. 7, 2013, it told the railroads to take steps within 30 days to ensure that trains moving hazardous materials do not move while unattended and possibly cause a similar disaster.
- A joint safety advisory reinforcing to railroads the importance of properly classifying Class 3 (flammable and combustible) materials and ensuring that their safety and security plans address the vulnerabilities cited in the emergency order.
- Audits and unannounced inspections and testing to verify material classification and packing group assignments by offerors of crude oil for transport.
- A safety alert from PHMSA notifying the public, emergency responders, shippers, and carriers that the crude being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil. The alert followed a derailment on Dec. 30, 2013, near Casselton, N.D., that involved 18 cars in a BNSF train transporting crude oil.
Richard F. Timmons, president of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association, assured Szabo by letter in October 2013 that the association has kept its 455 member railroads informed about Emergency Order No. 28 and the Rail Safety Advisory Committee meeting and its deliberations. Most association members that carry hazmats do so “at very low speeds of ten miles per hour or less, where the risk of unintended release is low,” Timmons wrote in the letter, which FRA has posted at http://www.fra.dot.gov/Page/P0670. “It is important to put these actions in the proper context. The American public deserves to know that securement failures in the US on main lines are very rare, and FRA’s own safety data reveal no correlation between crew size and safe securement. Nor do the data indicate that securement on main lines is a serious safety issue,” he added.
According to the Association of American Railroads, its members since August 2013 have self-imposed practices to increase the safety of trains moving energy products, including special speed limits. “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,” AAR President and CEO Edward R. Hamberger said in November 2013. “Our goal is to ensure that what we move, and how we move it, is done as safely as possible.”
AAR at that time recommended that PHMSA consider requiring these changes for tank cars moving flammable liquids:
- Increase federal design standards for new tank cars to include an outer steel jacket around the tank car, thermal protection, full-height head shields, and high-flow capacity pressure relief valves.
- Require additional safety upgrades to tank cars built since October 2011, when the rail industry instituted its latest design standards, and include installation of high-flow-capacity relief valves and design modifications to prevent bottom outlets from opening in an accident.
- Aggressively phase out older-model tank cars used to move flammable liquids that are not retrofitted to meet new federal requirements.
- Eliminate the current option for rail shippers to classify a flammable liquid with a flash point between 100 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit as a combustible liquid.
The comment period on PHMSA’s advance notice of proposed rulemaking closed on Dec. 5. PHMSA had extended it at the request of several environmental groups.