The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) unveiled the final version of updated safety standards for oil-by-rail transportation last month. These new standards require phasing out older tank cars that have been involved in several fiery derailments. They will also require new tank car designs and enhanced electronic braking systems for trains carrying flammable materials. The rule, which aligns with new tank car standards developed by Canadian transportation regulators, applies to so-called “high-hazard flammable trains.” These are defined as trains with a continuous block of 20 or more tank cars loaded with a flammable liquid or 35 or more tank cars loaded with a flammable liquid dispersed through a train.
The standards call for older DOT-111 tank cars used to transport crude to be retrofitted or replaced within three years and the industry’s enhanced rail car, the CPC-1232, to be retrofitted or replaced within five years if they are not outfitted with insulating jackets in order to meet a new DOT-117 standard, which calls for thicker tank shells and insulating jackets, thermal protection and improved pressure relief valves. All tank cars built after Oct. 1, 2015, must meet the DOT-117 standard. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement:
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. Our close collaboration with Canada on new tank car standards is recognition that the trains moving unprecedented amounts of crude by rail are not U.S. or Canadian tank cars — they are part of a North American fleet and a shared safety challenge.
The rule also requires high-hazard flammable trains (HHFTs) to have a functioning, two-way end-of-train device or a distributed power braking system. A single train with 70 or more tank cars loaded with Class 3 flammable liquids such as crude oil or ethanol is classified as a high-hazard flammable unit train and must be operated with an electronically controlled pneumatic braking system by 2023. For HHFTs with at least one tank car with highly flammable Packing Group I materials, the required braking system must be in operation by 2021. The rule imposes a 50-mile-per-hour speed limit on all HHFTs in all areas and a 40-mile-per-hour speed limit on HHFTs that don’t meet the new tank car standards in high-hazard urban areas. The DOT had previously issued an emergency order imposing the 40-mile-per-hour speed restriction.
The new Canadian tank car standard, the TC-117, shares the same characteristics of the DOT-117 tank car: thicker shells and jackets, thermal protection, and pressure relief valves. Canadian transport minister Lisa Raitt said in a statement:
This stronger, safer, more robust tank car will protect communities on both sides of our shared border. Through strong collaboration, we have developed a harmonized solution for North America’s tank car fleet.
The Association of American Railroads is critical of the requirement of electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, saying they won’t prevent accidents and will impose unnecessary retrofitting costs and disrupt U.S. rail operations. It was reported that the American Petroleum Institute is “lukewarm” on the final rule. The Institute says it supports enhanced tank car standards, but that the ECP brake requirement will only make retrofitting rail cars more difficult to accomplish by the rule’s deadlines. Jack Gerard, the API President and CEO, said in a statement:
We support upgrades to the tank car fleet and want them completed as quickly as realistically possible. The railcar manufacturing industry’s own calculations show it does not have the shop capacity to meet the retrofit timeline announced today, which will lead to shortages that impact consumers and the broader economy.
Meanwhile, environmental and anti-fossil fuel groups blasted the final rule as weak and repeated their calls for the older DOT-111 tank cars to be banned immediately. Patti Goldman, who is Earthjustice’s managing attorney, said in a statement:
Allowing hazardous tank cars to remain in crude service for five more years is disgraceful. As the head of the National Transportation Safety Board said two years ago, the DOT shouldn’t need a higher body count before we ban these defective cars from carrying explosive fuel through our towns and cities.
The North American shale boom has led to a similar boom in oil-by-rail transportation. But U.S. and Canadian regulators have been under pressure to toughen safety standards because of a number of crashes involving trains carrying crude oil, primarily from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale. The most notable crash was the July 2013 fiery derailment of a Bakken crude-carrying Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway Ltd. freight train in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people and destroyed a large portion of the town. The tanker cars that derailed in Quebec and spilled more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude were equivalent to DOT-111 tank cars.
It will be most interesting to see what develops now that the new rule has been released. I suspect there will be opposition from a number of industry groups. In fact, as you will read below, the activity has already started.
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