NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt to host a Rail Tank Car Safety Roundtable Discussion: A Dialogue on What’s Next in Rail Tank Car Safety
Among the provisions of the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) are new requirements for improved railroad operating practices, more effective emergency responses, and safer and stronger tank cars. While tank car fleet owners must decide whether to replace or retrofit legacy DOT-111 and CPC-1232 tank cars over the next 13-years, we continue to investigate serious accidents with flammable liquids releases and fires.
Rail tank car safety is of vital interest to the NTSB, and is on our 2016 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements. Because of our concern over tank car safety, we are hosting a roundtable to better understand issues facing implementation of the Fast Act requirements. We hope to gain deeper understanding of the logistics of replacing the existing tank car fleet to transport flammable materials, as well as how government and industry can overcome factors that could impede timely implementation of the new tank car rules.
Rail Safety Report Card: Only 225 Of Over 100,000 Unsafe Tank Cars Were Retrofitted in First Year
By Justin Mikulka • Monday, May 9, 2016 – 15:12
A year ago, when Federal regulators announced new rules for “high hazard” trains moving crude oil and ethanol, the oil industry protested that the rules were too strict. The main point of contention made by the American Petroleum Institute (API) was that the requirement to retrofit the unsafe DOT-111 and DOT-1232 tank cars within ten years did not allow enough time to get the job done.
Meanwhile, according to information recently provided to DeSmog by the Association of American Railroads, only 225 of the tank cars have been retrofitted in the past year. So, the API may have been onto something because at that rate it will take roughly 500 years to retrofit the entire fleet of DOT-111s and CPC-1232s based on government and industry estimates of fleet size of approximately 110,000.
As DeSmog reported earlier this year, the FAST Act transportation bill that passed in 2015 required that all DOT-111s that have not been retrofitted be retired from crude oil service by 2018. But the bill included the option that “The Secretary may extend the deadlines…if the Secretary determines that insufficient retrofitting shop capacity will prevent the phase-out of tank cars.”
However, prior to the new rule being finalized, Greg Saxton — a representative of leading tank car manufacturer Greenbrier — testified in Congress that there was sufficient shop capacity to meet the timeline noting that,“This is an aggressive timeline, we believe it is achievable.”
Saxton also made the assertion that the lack of new regulations was the issue that was delaying the safety retrofits.
“The only thing holding the industry back is the government’s inaction on proposed new tank car design standards and a deadline for having an upgraded rail tank car fleet.”
Now a year after the new rule was announced, with a mere 225 cars undergoing the safety upgrades, it would appear that was not the only thing holding back the industry.
DeSmog reached out to the Railway Supply Institute, leading oil-by-rail carrier BNSF, and Greenbrier to inquire about the lack of retrofits to date and asked if shop capacity was an issue, but did not receive any response. The Association of American Railroads and the Federal Railroad Administration were unable to provide information on shop capacity.
Unlike Safety, Public Relations On Schedule
Despite not actually making any significant safety improvements to the unsafe DOT-111 tank cars — tank cars called an “unacceptable public risk” by a member of the National Transportation Safety Board — the public relations effort to push the idea that the issue has been addressed appears to be successful.
In an article published in Chicago Magazine in April 2016, the risks of oil-by-rail were covered in detail. However, that article included the following statement, “Those first-generation tank cars, called DOT-111s, have almost all been subjected to new protections, including having their shells reinforced with steel a sixteenth of an inch thicker than used in earlier models.”
But 225 tanker cars clearly does not qualify as “almost all” of the DOT-111 oil tank car fleet.
As DeSmog has noted before, the oil and rail industries are very good at public relations when it concerns this topic. However, as when BNSF said they were buying 5,000 new tank cars that would exceed all safety standards, it often never results in anything more than a press release and some media coverage. BNSF never purchased the 5,000 tank cars.
Unsafe Tank Cars Can Carry More Oil and Bring Higher Profits
In January, Christopher A. Hart, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board, presented his remarks on the NTSB’s safety “Most Wanted List” and once again mentioned the risk of the DOT-111s in moving crude oil.
“We have been lucky thus far that derailments involving flammable liquids in America have not yet occurred in a populated area,” Hart said. “But an American version of Lac-Megantic could happen at any time.”
Why would the industry want to take this risk? Could it be because unsafe cars are more profitable?
The more oil a tank car can haul, the more profitable that oil train will be. The way rail works is that the weight of the car plus the weight of the cargo can only combine to be a certain amount. If your tank car weighs less, you can put in more oil because it effectively has more capacity.
Exxon made this case to regulators prior to the rulemaking. Check out this slide the company presented that points out that adding safety measures “reduces capacity” — which reduces profit.
Tank cars full of volatile Bakken crude oil — deemed an “unacceptable public risk” by an NTSB member — continue to move through communities across North America. And the tank car owners are not moving to make the required safety retrofits.
While oil-by-rail traffic is declining with the current low oil prices, that is unlikely to continue. And with the lack of pipeline infrastructure needed to move dilbit from ever-increasing tar sands oil production, industry opinion holds that rail has a good chance of making a comeback. And they are going to need rail cars to move that oil.
The question remains: Will the Secretary of the Department of Transportation use the loophole in the FAST Act to grant the industry an extension on using DOT-111s past 2018?
If history is any indication, with rail safety improvements such as positive train control being repeatedly delayed for decades — including a recent three-year extension by Congress — it would appear that is a likely outcome if the DOT-111s are needed by the oil industry.
This makes the prediction by the head of the NTSB that “an American version of Lac-Megantic could happen at any time” all the more likely to eventually occur.
New Oil Train Safety Regs Focus on Accident Response, Not Prevention
Long Phase-out of Hazardous Cars, Inadequate Speed Limits Leave Communities at Risk of Explosive Derailments
For Immediate Release, December 7, 2015
Contact: Jared Margolis, (802) 310-4054
WASHINGTON— A new transportation bill signed by President Obama includes provisions intended to improve the safety of oil trains, but leaves puncture-prone tank cars in service for years and fails to address the speed, length and weight of trains that experts point to as the leading causes of explosive derailments. The bill upgrades safety features on oil train tank cars and requires railroads to provide emergency responders with real-time information about when and where dangerous oil cargoes are being transported but doesn’t do enough to prevent oil train accidents, which have risen sharply in recent years.
“While these regulations improve our ability to prepare for oil train disasters they do virtually nothing to prevent them from ever occurring in the first place,” said Jared Margolis, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity who focuses on the impacts of energy development on endangered species. “Until we dramatically reduce the speed and length of these bomb trains it’s only a matter of time before the next explosive derailment sends fireballs rolling through one of our communities.”
The new regulations will require all oil train tank cars to include fire-resistant ceramic coatings and protections for protruding top fittings. The final rule issued by federal regulators in May only required oil trains with 35 loaded oil tank cars or 20-car blocks of oil tank cars to implement the new standards, and would not have required the ceramic blankets or top fitting protections for all retrofitted cars.
But experts say even the protective measures included in the new transportation regulations signed into law on Friday will do little to prevent a spill if a train derails at speeds faster than 18 mph, and oil trains are permitted to travel at 40 mph to 50 mph. And the new regulations do not require the phase-out of dangerous puncture-prone tank cars to begin until 2018, and allows them to remain in service until 2029.
“It’s irresponsible to continue to allow these bomb trains to roll through the middle of our communities and across some our most pristine landscapes,” said Margolis. “We need to quit pretending we can make these dangerous trains safe and simply ban them altogether.”
Congress has directed the U.S. Department of Transportation to continue requiring notifications to states of train routes and frequencies so communities can better prepare to respond to train derailments, explosions and oil spills. However, the new regulations do nothing to remedy the track infrastructure problems, or the excessive length and weight of oil trains, cited as leading causes of derailments. Further, it remains unclear whether the public will have access to information about these hazards.
“Keeping information on oil trains from public scrutiny is outrageous, and only serves to protect the corporate interests that care little about the risk to the homes, schools and wild areas that these trains threaten,” said Margolis. “We need to keep these trains off the tracks and keep these dangerous fossil fuels in the ground, rather than keeping the public in the dark.”
The National Transportation Safety Board has repeatedly found that current tank cars are prone to puncture on impact, spilling oil and often triggering destructive fires and explosions. But federal regulators have ignored the safety board’s official recommendation to stop shipping crude oil in the hazardous tank cars. Recent derailments and explosions have made clear that even the newer tank cars, known as CPC-1232s, are not significantly safer, often puncturing at low speeds.
The recent surge in U.S. and Canadian oil production, much of it from Bakken shale and Alberta tar sands, has led to a more than 4,000 percent increase in crude oil shipped by rail since 2005, primarily in trains with as many as 120 oil cars that are more than 1.5 miles long. The result has been oil spills, destructive fires, and explosions when oil trains have derailed. More oil spilled in train accidents just in 2013 than in the 38 years from 1975 to 2012 combined.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 900,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
AP: Railroads beat back new safety rules after derailments
By Matthew Brown and Michael Kunzelman, December 05, 2015
A pair of train derailments in 2012 that killed two people in Maryland and triggered a fiery explosion in Ohio exposed a little-known and unsettling truth about railroads in the U.S. and Canada: No rules govern when rail becomes too worn down to be used for hauling hazardous chemicals, thousands of tons of freight or myriad other products on almost 170,000 miles of track.
U.S. transportation officials moved to establish universal standards for when such steel gets replaced, but resistance from major freight railroads killed that bid, according to Associated Press interviews with U.S. and Canadian transportation officials, industry representatives and safety investigators.
Now, following yet another major accident linked to worn-out rails — 27 tanker cars carrying crude oil that derailed and exploded in West Virginia earlier this year — regulators are reviving the prospect of new rules for worn rails and vowing they won’t allow the industry to sideline their efforts.
“We try to look at absolutely every place where we can affect and improve safety,” said Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg. “Track generally is the place that we’re focusing at the moment, and it’s clearly overdue. Rail head wear is one place in particular that we feel like needs to be addressed as soon as possible.”
An official announcement on the agency’s intentions to revisit rail wear is expected by the end of the year.
In the meantime, federal regulators haven’t taken the positive steps that they need to, said Ronald Goldman, an attorney for the families of the two 19-year-old women who died in a 2012 derailment outside Baltimore.
“It’s a lack of will, not a lack of ability, in my opinion,” he added.
Industry supporters argue that the seven major freight railroads in the U.S. and Canada are in the best position to know what is going on with their lines, including when they need to be replaced or have the maximum speeds for trains traveling on them lowered. They also note a long-term decline in accidents that has reduced the frequency of derailments by more than 40 percent since 2000.
All sides agree it’s difficult to pinpoint how many accidents are tied to worn rail. Since 2000, U.S. officials blamed rail wear as the direct cause of 111 derailments causing $11 million in damage.
That’s less than 1 percent of all accidents, yet it masks a broader safety dilemma: Years of massive loads rolling over a rail will exacerbate defects in the steel, such as cracks or fractures. Investigators ultimately list the defect as the cause of a derailment, but it might never have been a problem if the rail had not been worn down.
“Rail defects are internal and rail wear is external, and when external meets internal, that’s when problems may arise,” said John Zuspan of Track Guy Consultants, a Pennsylvania firm that offers track inspections, safety training and other services for railroads.
Two accident causes in particular have the strongest correlation with worn-out rails: “detail fractures” that result from fatigued metal, and “vertical splits” in the head of the rail, where it makes contact with a train’s wheels, according to the FRA.
Those problems caused a combined 1,200 derailments with $300 million in damages, three deaths and 29 people injured in the U.S. between 2000 and the present, according to accident records reviewed by the AP.
Among them was the July 2012 derailment of a Norfolk Southern Railway train hauling ethanol and other products through Columbus, Ohio. Seventeen cars derailed, including three hauling highly flammable ethanol that exploded into flames, triggering an evacuation of surrounding neighborhoods.
A month later, another accident occurred involving a CSX Transportation train hauling coal over a bridge along Main Street in Ellicott City, Maryland, outside Baltimore. Twenty-one cars derailed when the company’s worn-down rail split beneath the weight of the coal cars. The two college students sitting on the bridge died, crushed by thousands of pounds of spilled coal.
The victims’ families reached a settlement with CSX last year for undisclosed terms. Goldman, the families’ attorney, said he pressed federal officials for a forum that would allow his clients to testify about the issue, but “nothing really happened.”
A month after the CSX derailment, federal regulators asked the Rail Safety Advisory Committee — a panel created by the Railroad Administration to include the industry and others in fashioning safety rules — to craft new standards to reduce the risks of worn-down rail. The committee set up a 116-person working group to tackle the problem, made up of industry representatives, government officials, consultants, researchers and railroad worker unions.
The group included 55 representatives from the major freight railroads and their industry organization, the Association of American Railroads. The FRA had 14 seats at the table and their counterparts from Transport Canada had five.
Following several meetings in 2012 and 2013, the group — which required consensus before recommending action — agreed on voluntary guidance for companies to manage rail wear, but no new regulations.
“There was certainly a lot of pushback and a lot of political pressure put on FRA not to adopt regulations for rail wear,” said Richard Inclima, director of safety for the union that represents track inspectors and a member of the working group. “Rail wear limits were on the table. The industry raised a lot of arguments against rail wear limits.”
“The industry doesn’t want to be regulated,” he added. “That’s no secret.”
The railroads’ opposition was confirmed by others involved with the group’s work including from the National Transportation Safety Board, the FRA and Transport Canada.
Association of American Railroads spokesman Ed Greenberg said the railroads were “unaware of any science-based data supporting rail wear limits.”
NTSB investigator Richard Hipskind, who took part in the Ellicott City and Columbus accident investigations and later served on the rail wear working group, said more research would be needed to establish universal standards.
Railroads have their own internal standards for rail wear, and have replaced more than 30,000 miles of rail since 2010, according to reports submitted by the major railroads to the U.S Surface Transportation Board, a semiautonomous agency under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Standards vary among railroads and are complicated by differences in how much weight a given line bears, whether it’s in a wet or dry climate, and if the line goes through mountains or involves lots of turns. Those variables can make the difference between well-worn rail that’s still safe and routes that poses a heightened safety hazard, according to industry experts and safety officials.
Greenberg said the industry takes an aggressive approach to identifying and removing defective or worn sections of rail.
“Each railroad has its distinct operating environment and operating conditions that would be factored into this,” Greenberg said. He added that the industry was now interested in “renewed dialogue” with the FRA on the topic.
The AP requested details on rail wear standards from each of the seven major freight railroads — BNSF Railway, Union Pacific, Canadian Pacific, CSX, Canadian National, Norfolk Southern and Kansas City Southern. They either refused the request or referred questions to the railroad association, which also declined to release the standards.
Public attention to train derailments increased sharply after July 2013, when an out-of-control oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. One of the most significant changes to emerge from that and other accidents involving crude and ethanol was a mandate for companies to phase out or upgrade tens of thousands of tank cars that are prone to rupture.
Those are important changes, said James Horbay, a rail safety engineer with Transport Canada. But what causes trains to come off the tracks in the first place needs to be resolved, he said.
“If you crash an airplane, are you going to say, ‘Let’s build an airplane that’s not going to fall apart when it hits the ground?'” he asked. “Whether rail wear is something that should be looked at is a good question to ask. You’re going right to the cause now.”
Matthew Brown reported from Billings, Montana. Michael Kunzelman reported from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.