New regulations for oil on rail cars to come in 2015

HOUSTON — Regulations that could force oil companies to use stronger rail cars to move crude likely will be ready in 2015, according to a schedule released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Oil companies have increasingly used rail cars to move crude, but recent disasters, including a derailment and massive explosions in North Dakota last month, have drawn attention to the cars’ vulnerabilities. New regulations that could force older tank cars to be upgraded or phased out are under development, but will not be proposed until Nov. 12 and will be subject to a public comment period until Jan. 12, 2015, according to the Department of Transportation.

However, that initial timeline could shift as the process continues, said Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration spokesman Gordon Delacambre.

Recent derailments and explosions, including one in Quebec that killed 47, have involved tank cars widely thought to be weak.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Monday drew more concern about the tank cars, reporting that 18 of the 20 tank cars that derailed in the North Dakota incident were punctured. The NTSB also confirmed that the tank cars involved in the incident were an aging model that has drawn scrutiny for being especially vulnerable to punctures.

Weak shells

The board has for years said the widely used DOT-111 rail tank cars are weak and should be retrofitted or phased out because they experience more serious damage in accidents than other models, such as pressure tank cars. The difference “can be attributed to the fact that pressure tank cars have thicker shells and heads,” the agency’s chairwoman, Deborah Hersman, wrote in a letter to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in 2012.

The Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration sets regulations for the rail cars.

About 85 percent of the 92,000 tank cars used to transport flammable liquids in the United States are DOT-111s or other car types that need to be phased out or upgraded, according to the American Association of Railroads.

Comments and proposals

Regulators have solicited comments about the potential regulations and have begun analyzing proposals that would address concerns about the DOT-111 tank cars, Delacambre said.

Despite increased calls for updated regulations following the Dec. 30 derailment in North Dakota, the regulations will take months to develop. Railway workers and companies have been among those calling for new regulations.

Railways typically do not own the rail cars used to hold oil. The cars typically are owned or leased by the companies shipping products by rail.