Tag Archives: U.S. National Transportation Safety Board

Rail industry: Recent train derailments are not a sign of deteriorating safety record

Repost from The Financial Post
[Editor:  Read this if you want to hear rail and transportation managers squirm.  Best quote: “If you ship 10 times as much crude oil, you’ll get 10 times more derailments.”   To which one might answer, “Yep.”  – RS]

Recent train derailments are not a sign of deteriorating safety record, say analysts

By Kristine Owram, Mar 12 5:42 PM ET
Four separate oil trains — two in Ontario and two in the United States — have derailed and caught fire in the past month and in each case the tank cars met what are supposed to be tougher, safer standards.
Four separate oil trains — two in Ontario and two in the United States — have derailed and caught fire in the past month and in each case the tank cars met what are supposed to be tougher, safer standards. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO – Glenn Thibeault

A recent spate of train derailments is not a sign that the industry’s safety record is deteriorating, but is rather “the bad luck of the stats,” analysts say.

A Canadian National Railway Co. train derailed near Brandon, Man., on Wednesday night, joining two other high-profile incidents involving CN trains in less than a month.

CN spokesman Brent Kossey said the cars were carrying refinery cracking stock, a non-regulated commodity that’s used in the petroleum refining process. One of the 13 cars that derailed sprung a leak, but there was no fire.

This is in contrast to two CN derailments near the community of Gogama, Ont., in the past month, both of which were carrying crude oil and caught fire. There have also been two fiery oil-train derailments in the U.S. since mid-February — one a BNSF Railway Co. train in northern Illinois and the other a CSX Corp. train in West Virginia.

It sounds like an alarming trend but analysts say it’s simply the inevitable result of the growing volumes of crude transported by rail, as well as increased scrutiny of the industry following the Lac-Mégantic, Que., disaster in 2013.

“Last year was the safest year on record,” Tony Hatch, principal at railway consulting firm ABH Consulting, said in an interview. “I think what you’re seeing is intense scrutiny and the bad luck of the stats.”

According to the National Energy Board, the volume of Canadian crude-by-rail exports has increased by 1,000% in less than three years, from 1.45 million barrels in the first quarter of 2012 to 15.95 million in the fourth quarter of 2014.

“If you ship 10 times as much crude oil, you’ll get 10 times more derailments,” Allan Zarembski, director of the railroad engineering and safety program at the University of Delaware, said in an interview.

He added that an oil-train is no more likely to derail than any other type of train.

“The oil trains aren’t heavier than a coal train or an iron-ore train or even a grain train,” he said.

“They’re all loaded to the same range, they don’t travel any faster — in fact, they travel somewhat slower than the heavy intermodal trains. There’s no particular reason why you should have more derailments associated with an oil train.”

The industry’s safety record has been steadily improving over the last several years thanks to new technology, said Russell Quimby, a former rail safety engineer with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and president of Quimby Consulting.

“In the last 20 years, the amount of detection and inspection technology introduced and implemented is tremendous,” Mr. Quimby said. “The accident statistics reflect that.”

According to the Transportation Safety Board, a total of 83 main-track derailments were reported in 2013, down 6% from the five-year average.

Transport Canada is also working to reduce the risk of fires and spills. The agency proposed Wednesday a new standard for the tank cars used to ship crude that will include thicker steel, insulation to protect the contents from fire and a shield to guard against punctures, among other things. If the measures are approved, older tank cars will be phased out by 2025.

“While we have already banned the least crash-resistant tank cars from the system and came out last year with tougher new regulations, we will continue to do more,” Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said in a statement. The minister has also called on CN to testify before the Transport Committee about the recent derailments.

But as long as crude is being shipped by rail, there will always be a risk of fiery derailments, Mr. Quimby said.

“You want to have zero accidents,” Mr. Quimby said. “It’s like flying. Statistically, flying is safer than driving but it’s not safer if you happen to be in the airplane that goes down.”

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