U.S. railroads are supporting new safety standards for rail cars that haul flammable liquids to address flaws that can allow crude oil, ethanol and other substances to leak during accidents. The Association of American Railroads (AAR) asserted last month that railroads support making upgrades to the fleet of 92,000 tank cars that carry flammable liquids.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is considering a plan intended to fix a dangerous design flaw in a rail car commonly used to haul oil and other hazardous liquids from coast to coast. Safety experts say the soda-can shaped car, known as the DOT-111, has a tendency to split open during derailments and other major accidents.
Two explosive oil-train derailments that occurred in Alabama this year have brought into focus the need for some needed changes. The last derailment occurred recently in a rural county in central Alabama. The derailments raised new questions about the safety of the crude-by-rail boom. The questioning surfaced following an earlier tragedy that took place in Quebec. You will recall that incident involved a runaway train that careened into the center of town, bursting into a fireball that killed 47 people and leveled buildings.
The train in Alabama, owned and operated by Genesee & Wyoming Inc., was traveling on relatively flat terrain at below the 40-miles-per-hour limit. The tank cars on the 90-car Genesee train were T108s, not the DOT-111s that have been faulted by regulators. The train carried North Dakota crude, a type that tends to be very low-density or “light,” meaning it contains more volatile compounds that may account for its explosive properties.
Rapid proliferation of crude-by-rail shipments started more than three years ago, as pipeline infrastructure lagged booming U.S. and Canadian crude production. In the third quarter, U.S. shipments rose 44 percent to 93,312 carloads, equivalent to about 740,000 barrels per day or almost a tenth of U.S. production. The increase has been a boon for U.S. railroads, which have lost coal shipments as more U.S. power plants move over to natural gas.
According to the AAR, about 92,000 tank cars are moving flammable liquids, with about 78,000 of those requiring retrofit or phase out. It appears that 14,000 newer tank cars complied with the latest industry safety standards, but it was said that those should still be modified. Many of the proposed changes are meant to prevent explosions of the kind seen in the recent accident in Alabama. Safety experts say the new cars should include a steel jacket, thermal protection and pressure relief valves. It appears that even cars built since October 2011, when the rail industry brought in its latest design standards, will need modifications. Many safety experts don’t see crude-by-rail transport as a safe option. But the railroads will push hard on this issue. In any event, the debate about the relative safety of pipelines versus rail will continue – stay tuned!
Sources: Reuters and Insurance Journal and Claims Journal
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