Days before a hazardous-materials safety train visited the CSX Transportation railroad yard in Willard, Ohio, federal regulators announced proposed rules for the operation of “high-hazard flammable trains” like the unit trains of crude oil and ethanol that now rumble across northwest Ohio every day.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s proposal, defines such a high-hazard train as one carrying 20 or more tank-car loads of flammable liquids.
Such trains would be speed-limited to 40 miles per hour in all urban areas with populations exceeding 100,000 or deemed “high threat” by federal rule. They would be allowed to go 50 mph in rural areas only if their tank cars comply with new standards for tank-car construction that is proposed to apply to all cars built after Oct. 1, 2015. The standards govern such things as tank thickness, car-end puncture shielding (such as seen on the car shown here), the use of electronically controlled braking (as opposed to air brakes now typical in the railroad industry), and external fittings.
Older cars would have to either be retrofitted to comply with the new standards, repurposed for other commodities, or operated at reduced speeds for no more than five years in flammable-liquids service before being retired.
Issuance of the official Notice of Proposed Rule Making started a 60-day public-comment clock. Documents associated with the proposal can be seen here.
Railroads have hauled hazardous materials, including various petroleum products and other highly flammable liquids, for decades. Those shipments have attracted regulatory attention now, though, because of rapid growth in crude-oil traffic during the past five years thanks to the oil-drilling boom in North Dakota, which lacks the sort of extensive pipeline network developed during the 20th century to move oil north from the United States’ traditional oil patch in Texas and Oklahoma.
Many trains hauling that oil cross Ohio or, to a lesser degree, southern Michigan, as do trainload shipments of ethanol, which for the past decade or so has become a primary pollution-control additive to gasoline and is shipped by rail because of ethanol’s unsuitability for shipment in gasoline pipelines.
Trains of both kinds have been involved in a scattering of spectacular derailments, including an ethanol-train pileup near Arcadia, Ohio several years ago that injured nobody but required nearby homes’ evacuations for several days. Another ethanol train derailed at a washed-out bridge in Illinois, killing a motorist waiting at a nearby road crossing, while recent oil-train wrecks have caused large fires in North Dakota and Alabama and along the James River in Lynchburg, Va.
But most devastating was the runaway of an unattended oil train last year in Lac-Megantic, Que., that blew up after derailing in the center of the town’s business district, killing 47 people. Canada has since banned oil shipments in tank cars not compliant with design revisions implemented by tank-car manufacturers three years ago -- standards that are under consideration as an option in the U.S. federal rulemaking, too.
Publication of the proposed tank-car standards prompted comments from several quarters.
“Ohio has an extensive network of rail, water, and road options on which to transport products,” said U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio). “Because of that, local officials and first responders must be prepared to handle any situation that could endanger local residents. Once implemented, these new safety standards will help ensure more robust and up-to-date standards for railcars transporting hazardous and other materials across the state.”
The Greenbrier Companies, a major tank-car manufacturer, said it was pleased that two of three alternate new standards feature a shell of 9/16-inch thick steel, which Greenbrier has recommended in its own new design.
“Greenbrier is pleased that Secretary [of Transportation Anthony] Foxx recognizes the urgency of completing this rulemaking and we commend his stated intention to issue a rule in the next 60 days,” Greenbrier said in a prepared statement. “A final rule will provide the clarity the industry needs to make investments that ensure that crude oil and other flammable commodities are classified properly and transported in tank cars that are safer at any speed.”
The Railway Supply Institute Committee on Tank Cars also took a neutral stance, saying it will prepare and submit comments once it has reviewed the regulatory notices in detail.
But the American Petroleum Institute took exception to a passage in the Transportation Department’s announcement that described Bakken Shale oil as tending to be “more volatile and flammable than other crude oils.”
“The best science and data do not support recent speculation that crude oil from the Bakken presents greater than normal transportation risks,” API president Jack Gerard said. “Multiple studies have shown that Bakken crude is similar to other crudes. DOT needs to get this right and make sure that its regulations are grounded in facts and sound science, not speculation.”