Tag Archives: Federal Railroad Administration

Deregulating Rail Transportation of Liquefied Natural Gas

The Regulatory Review, by Mark Nakahara, Mar 24, 2020

Proposed rule aims to make it easier to ship liquified natural gas by rail.

A new regulation from the Trump Administration may soon make it easier for U.S. companies to ship large quantities of liquefied natural gas (LNG), an increasingly valuable product. But the new regulation also carries great risks.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) recently released a proposed rule that would allow for railroads to transport LNG in bulk and without obtaining special permits. Critics, however, worry that PHMSA is acting too quickly and disregarding certain safety concerns.

LNG is a cryogenic liquid—a substance that must be refrigerated below -90°C (-130°F) to maintain its liquid state. Since liquids are more compact than gases, large volumes of substances like LNG can be transported by freight trains.

PHMSA states that LNG is “odorless, colorless, non-corrosive, and non-toxic,” but safety concerns remain. LNG has traditionally been shipped by road or sea, and current regulations only allow the bulk transportation of LNG by rail after a shipper has obtained special approval from PHMSA or the Federal Railroad Administration. Observing that LNG is similar in nature to other substances that may be shipped by rail, the Association of American Railroads petitioned PHMSA to allow LNG to be shipped by rail in standard tank cars.

The issue of LNG transportation reached the highest levels of the U.S. government. In an executive order, President Trump noted that the current LNG regulations were drafted almost 40 years ago when the industry was less developed. As part of an effort to upgrade American energy infrastructure, the President specifically requested that the U.S. Department of Transportation amend the regulations to “treat LNG the same as other cryogenic liquids and permit LNG to be transported in approved rail tank cars.”

Just over six months after the executive order, PHMSA issued its proposed rule.

The proposed rule would permit the shipping of LNG in DOT-113 tank cars, which routinely transport other cryogenic liquids such as liquid hydrogen, nitrogen, and ethylene. Since LNG has similar properties to these liquids, PHMSA anticipates that the cars would be suitable for this task. PHMSA says that it also considered creating specifications for a new type of tank car that would be able to transport LNG over a longer timeframe, but it concluded that this process would only delay the rulemaking process.

The proposed rule also raises and seeks public comment on various operational issues designed to reduce safety risks should a rail accident occur. Since LNG is a hazardous material shipped at high pressure, a derailment or collision involving a tank car can have severe effects.

PHMSA is considering several methods for reducing risk. Following a safety recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board, PHMSA has noted that cars containing LNG could be arranged a safe distance from the train crew in the locomotive. It also has suggested that speed restrictions could be imposed on trains carrying LNG, or that additional routing requirements be fulfilled when scheduling rail shipments of LNG.

Due to a lack of data on LNG rail shipments, PHMSA has not yet proposed any concrete, definitive rule changes addressing these operational issues. PHMSA anticipates that freight trains will only carry a few LNG cars at a time and the agency finds it “uncertain” whether the industry would grow to the point where entire trains would be devoted to LNG.

In a letter to PHMSA, U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) expressed concern that the agency had not considered all the risks the proposed rule might create. They recalled that there have been two incidents since 2011 where the protective linings of cryogenic tank cars have been breached. Since the LNG industry continues to grow, the senators worry that increased rail transport of LNG will lead to more such incidents.

The senators have reason to be concerned. In 2016, a crude oil train derailed and caught on fire in their home state of Oregon. The accident released 42,000 gallons of oil into the Columbia River Gorge. Due to the geography of the area, emergency response crews faced difficulties in quickly reaching the site. The senators noted that LNG’s high flammability can cause even hotter and more explosive fires than crude oil, a fact that the proposed rule does not cover in detail.

Environmental advocacy groups have similarly criticized the proposed rule. In a comment, Bradley Marshall and Jordan Luebkemann of Earthjustice have stated that PHMSA’s proposal is “unlawful” and fails to address potential adverse effects. Since LNG is more explosive than other cryogenic liquids being shipped by rail, an LNG accident in a populated area could have disastrous consequences.

Marshall and Luebkemann have reportedly found that 3.4% of DOT-113 tank cars have been damaged since 1980. Furthermore, they have observed that PHMSA provided no new data or justification to show that the safety of these tank cars has improved.

PHMSA received almost 400 comments before the comment period closed on January 13, 2020. The agency will now have to consider these comments before issuing any final rule.

Fixing railroad tank cars gains traction after recent derailments

Repost from McClatchyDC News

Fixing railroad tank cars gains traction after recent derailments

By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau, March 30, 2015
US NEWS RAILSAFETY-CA 1 SA
Recently filled, a tanker truck drives past railway cars containing crude oil on railroad tracks in McClellan Park in North Highlands on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. North Highlands is a suburb just outside the city limits of Sacramento, Calif. RANDALL BENTON — MCT

— While some government and industry officials have repeatedly said there’s no silver bullet to improve the safety of oil trains, a persistent problem runs through every new derailment: the tank cars.

Oil industry groups maintain that railroads should do a better job of maintaining track to prevent derailments, while the rail industry has called for more robust tank cars that are better equipped to survive accidents.

Although there’s almost universal consensus that improvements are required in both areas, there’s one key difference.

Railroads have already spent heavily in recent years to improve their track for all kinds of freight and have pledged to spend more. Meanwhile, the companies that own and lease tank cars for transporting oil and other flammable liquids have been waiting for regulators to approve a more robust design to account for the exponential increase in energy traffic on the rails before they invest an additional cent.

The railroad industry petitioned the U.S. Department of Transportation in March 2011 for a more robust tank-car design. Rather than wait for an answer, the industry adopted its own upgrades later that year. But several recent derailments involving different types of crude have suggested that those cars don’t perform significantly better than those they replaced.

The DOT-111A tank car

About 92,000 DOT-111s are in use; 78,000 lack extra safety features. Most tank cars are leased by oil companies or other firms moving products by rail.

TheDOT-111TankCar (FRA)And unlike the controversy that surrounds other proposed solutions or doubts about their effectiveness, tank car upgrades have the support of lawmakers, regulators, mayors and governors, community and industry groups, and the National Transportation Safety Board.

“We certainly have been distracted from doing what is the most obvious safety improvement: the cars,” said Peter Goelz, former managing director of the NTSB.

The White House Office of Management and Budget is reviewing a package of proposals that include an improved tank-car design. But the new rules aren’t scheduled to be published until May, frustrating many who’ve pushed for better tank cars for years.

In January, the NTSB included tank cars on its “Most Wanted List” of safety improvements.

For more than two decades, the NTSB has called for improving the most common type of tank car, the DOT-111. But those calls were largely ignored until railroads started carrying dramatically larger volumes of domestically produced crude oil and ethanol.

The minimally reinforced cars proved vulnerable to punctures in derailments, spilling their contents, which quickly caught fire. Such fires could compromise other cars by heating their contents to the point where they burst through the tank walls with explosive force.

“Once you get a leak and fire, that can spread to other cars,” said Greg Saxton, chief engineer for the Greenbrier Companies, which is already building a tank car to tougher standards. “That’s the No. 1 thing we want to do. We don’t want to have a leak.”

After a July 2013 oil train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killed 47 people, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board found that none of the cars in that incident was equipped with thermal protection. The cars that sustained only minor impact damage ultimately ripped open after fire exposure, violently releasing their pressurized contents as large fireballs.

The rail industry made a few modifications to DOT-111 cars manufactured since 2011, including shields that protected the bottom half of each end of the car and more reinforcement for valves and outlets. But an outer steel jacket to provide extra puncture resistance and insulation to protect the car’s contents from fire exposure were optional.

In recent derailments in West Virginia, Illinois and Ontario, the newer cars, called CPC-1232s, lacked those extra safeguards.

“Do we need a new standard for tank cars? Absolutely,” said Ed Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s principal advocacy group.

Those existing cars could be retrofitted with jackets and thermal insulation until new ones are built. But even those improvements are waiting on the White House for final approval.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., along with three Democratic co-sponsors – Patty Murray of Washington state, Dianne Feinstein of California and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin – introduced a bill last week that would require an immediate ban on crude oil shipments in DOT-111 and non-jacketed CPC-1232 tank cars. It also would force new cars to meet a standard that exceeds any current requirement.

“No one wants to pull the trigger and say they should be removed,” she said in an interview. “We can’t wait to see a more aggressive plan.”

The redesigned tank car may look like the one the Canadian government proposed this month. It includes full-height shields on both ends, thermal insulation and an outer jacket.

Last year, railroads voluntarily agreed to limit oil train speeds to 40 mph in a select number of densely populated areas and 50 mph everywhere else. But six of the most recent derailments cast doubt on the effectiveness of reducing speeds as a mitigation measure.

All the trains in the four most recent U.S. derailments that resulted in fires or spills were going under 40 mph. Three were traveling at less than 25 mph and one at just 9 mph. In the two most recent Canadian wrecks, the trains were traveling at 38 and 43 mph.

The Federal Railroad Administration wants railroads to install electronic braking systems on trains that carry crude oil. But the industry opposes new braking requirements, and they wouldn’t address the vulnerabilities of tank cars to punctures and fire exposure.

Even those who support an “all of the above” approach to dealing with the problem say tank car improvements are a crucial step.

“It’s unfortunate to have the NTSB investigating the same accident over and over again,” said Jim Hall, a former NTSB chairman. “We’re overdue in addressing this issue with the DOT-111.”