Wreck investigators urge tighter rules for oil trains

WASHINGTON — U.S. and Canadian accident investigators on Thursday told regulators to swiftly tighten standards for oil-carrying trains, following a series of fiery derailments that highlighted the risks of increasing crude-by-rail shipments.

The joint recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board and Canada’s Transportation Safety Board include better planning to route hazardous materials around cities and other sensitive areas. The groups also want regulators to audit oil shipments to make sure they are classified properly and that safety plans are in place in case of an accident.

The NTSB previously urged U.S. regulators to stiffen requirements for the DOT-111 tank cars frequently used to haul crude and other flammable materials across North America. Although voluntary standards apply to new Class 111 tank cars, older ones have been criticized as prone to rupturing in accidents.

The unprecedented joint recommendations from the U.S. and Canadian safety boards respond both to the massive surge in oil being transported across North American tracks and recent accidents involving crude cars, including a derailment in Lac-Megantic,Quebec last July that killed 47 people. More recently, an explosion followed the derailment of two trains after a collision in North Dakota in December and six crude tankers derailed on a bridge over the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania earlier this week.

“The large-scale shipment of crude oil by rail simply didn’t exist 10 years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up with this new reality,” NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said in a statement. “While this energy boom is good for business, the people and the environment along rail corridors must be protected from harm.”

The recommendations could help lower the consequences of rail accidents involving crude, even as federal regulators work to write new standards for the most commonly used Class 111 tank cars hauling hazardous liquids. New regulations could be a year away, and even then, it is unclear how quickly older DOT-111 fleets would be replaced with the newly strengthened models.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the recommendations are “common sense” steps that would “reduce the risk and damage associated with rail accidents.”

And Association of American Railroads CEO Edward Hamberger said the group was in “full agreement” with the recommendations. “They align with our previous calls for increased federal tank car safety standards as well as the work the industry is undertaking with our customers and the administration in an environment of shared responsibility for the safe movement of America’s energy products,” Hamberger said in a statement.

The safety boards’ recommendations dovetail with voluntary steps agreed to by railroads and shippers during a meeting with federal regulators last week.

During a meeting with Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx last week, the industry leaders agreed to evaluate whether trains carrying oil should move at slower speeds through sensitive areas or be rerouted around them.

But slowing traffic down has disadvantages for shippers, who appreciate the relative speed of railing oil.

Federal regulators at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration have already warned shippers to make sure they properly test, characterize and classify the materials they transport, partly in light of concerns that the light, sweet oil flowing from many U.S. fields has a lower flash point, can more easily vaporize and is more flammable than conventional crudes. And PHMSA recently took samples of crude coming out of wells in Texas’ Eagle Ford formation.

Canadian investigators who are still probing the Lac-Megantic explosion say that the crude carried on the accident train was inaccurately characterized as being less volatile and flammable. Based on test results, it should have been given a higher risk classification, they said.

Improper classification of oil shipments can leave rail companies and emergency responders without essential information during emergencies, possibly prompt them to take firefighting methods (such as spraying foam) that might not be appropriate.

As domestic oil production has surged in areas such as North Dakota that lack extensive pipeline networks, U.S. crude shipments by rail have jumped dramatically as a way to get that stranded oil to refineries in Texas and on the East Coast. According to the rail industry, 400,000 carloads of oil traveled by rail in 2013, compared to just 10,000 four years earlier. EY Oil and Gas has estimated that rail shipments of crude totals 18,000 barrels a day in 2008 but were at 425,000 barrels daily in 2012.

With oil shipments still climbing, Canada’s TSB chairwoman Wendy Tadros stressed that the North American rail system “weaknesses…must be urgently addressed.”

“If North American railways are to carry more and more of these flammable liquids through our communities, it must be done safely,” Tadros said. “Change must come and it must come now.”

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