Tag Archives: Federal Rail Administration

Rail Industry Requests Massive Loophole in Oil-by-Rail Safety To Extend Bomb Trains Well Beyond 2025

Repost from DeSmogBlog

Rail Industry Requests Massive Loophole in Oil-by-Rail Safety To Extend Bomb Trains Well Beyond 2025

By Justin Mikulka, July 21, 2016 – 13:00

In the most recent oil-by-rail accident in Mosier, Oregon the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) concluded that the tank cars involved — the jacketed CPC-1232 type — “performed as expected.” So an oil train derailing at the relatively slow speed of 25 mph should be “expected” to have breached cars resulting in fiery explosions.

Current regulations allow those tank cars to continue rolling on the track carrying volatile Bakken crude oil and ethanol until 2025 with no modifications.

Yet industry lobbying group the Railway Supply Institute (RSI) has now requested the Federal Railroad Administration to essentially allow these jacketed CPC-1232 tank cars to remain on the tracks for decades beyond 2025.

This was just one of the troubling facts that came to light at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) roundtable on tank car safety on July 13th, and perhaps the one of greatest concern to anyone living in an oil train blast zone like Mosier, Oregon.

Just Re-Stencil It and Call It a DOT 117

One of the biggest risks with Bakken oil train accidents is that often the only way to deal with the fires is to let them burn themselves out. This can result in full tank cars becoming engulfed in flames for hours or days in what is known as a pool fire. This can lead to a “thermal tear” in the tank and the signature mushroom cloud of fire so often seen with these derailments.

The new regulations address this issue by requiring tank cars to have a layer of ceramic insulation covering the entire tank car to prevent the oil from heating up to the point of creating a thermal tear (ceramic shown in pink in the image below.)

Image credit: NTSB

However, the RSI has requested the FRA to allow the existing jacketed CPC-1232 cars, like the ones in the Mosier accident, to not require the ceramic thermal protection.

The industry’s argument is that the current fiberglass insulation on the CPC-1232 is sufficient protection. However, the fact that the fiberglass insulation was not designed to protect the contents of a tank car from fire does not seem to bother the RSI.

At the same time the RSI is arguing against thermal protection for CPC-1232s, the RSI has helpful videos on its website explaining the new safety features for DOT-117 tank cars — including “thermal protection.”

The NTSB’s Robert Sumwalt summed up what this request would mean in one simple statement at the July 13 round table event saying, “the same type of cars as in Mosier can be re-stenciled as DOT-117R with nothing more than a new bottom outlet valve.” [R stands for retrofit.]

So, they are essentially asking to paint over the CPC-1232 label on the tank cars with a DOT-117 while doing nothing more than changing the bottom outlet valve. Which means we should expect many more accidents like Mosier in the future since most of these CPC-1232 cars are only a few years old and they have an expected working life of 30-40 years.

As Robert Sumwalt said in his opening statement explaining why we should expect many more fiery oil train derailments with the existing tank car fleet, “just do the math.”

Industry Arguments Laughable If Not For the Consequences

Would you believe that one of the arguments made at the roundtable in favor of not requiring thermal protection on these cars was that the oil itself acts as a heat sink? Which is true. Until the point where the oil absorbs so much heat from the fire that the tank car explodes.

However, the reason this argument is given credibility is that the regulations only require a tank car to endure sitting in a pool fire for 100 minutes without exploding. Forget the fact that many of the Bakken oil train accidents have involved fires that burned for days.

This 100-minute limit was the same reasoning used to justify the fiberglass insulation on the current jacketed CPC-1232 as offering sufficient protection, as per the industry request. Which led to the following exchange between the NTSB’s Sumwalt and RSI representative John Byrne.

Byrne: “In our own modeling the fiberglass insulation system met the federal requirement for thermal protection.”

Sumwalt: “But in reality in the fiberglass situation, doesn’t the fiberglass all just melt… doesn’t it also melt and all end up pooling down in the bottom in the void between the blanket and the shell?”

Byrne: “Basically yes…but at the same time, that whole system acts as a thermal protection system in that it meets the requirement based on the federal law.”

Sumwalt: “Ok, thanks. So it meets the requirements.”

So, along with the oil itself being offered as adequate thermal protection, we also get fiberglass that melts in a fire being offered as protection for anyone in the blast zone.

So what did the regulators have to say about this absurd argument?

FRA’s Karl Alexy made it clear that “industry” concerns were receiving serious consideration saying, “we’re not taking it lightly, we understand what it means to industry… be certain that we are taking this very seriously.”

Well, we do understand what it means to the industry. Adding ceramic thermal protection would cut into profits. And one thing that was made clear repeatedly during the day’s discussion was that this was all about the money and that safety was only for people worried about “risk.”

As usual when there is a discussion about oil train safety, the oil industry lobbying group the American Petroleum Institute had a seat at the table. API representative Susan Lemieux cut to the heart of the issue with some actual honesty.

“In the industry we don’t see transportation as a risk, it is just a function of business.”

Why try to improve the situation when you don’t see any risk?

The FRA and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration have informed DeSmog that they will issue a formal response to the industry’s request to allow the fiberglass to qualify as thermal protection in the near future.

The Ground Rules – Profits Over Safety

In the above slide shown of the DOT-117, there is one other important thing to note. The shells on those tank cars are 9/16th of an inch thick. The shells of the jacketed CPC-1232 are 7/16th of an inch thick. This difference has safety implications as the thinner shells rupture more easily.  The RSI points out this fact in a video on its website about the advantages of the thicker shells on the DOT-117 which they say are “less prone to puncture.”

But the more important difference, as we have pointed out repeatedly at DeSmog, is that safer car designs are heavier, which means they can transport less oil per car. That lower capacity again cuts into profits. This point was made by ExxonMobil in a slide they presented to regulators arguing against thicker tank shells.

While Exxon was not at the roundtable, plenty of oil and rail industry representatives were, and they made this point very clear.

Gabe Claypool, President of oil train operators Dakota Plains, explained why it made economic sense to use CPC-1232s over DOT-117s.

“A lot of it’s economics as well…we were just having a conversation around the sizing of the car, the 1232 car type is very much in abundance and it is also a larger car. In the current category of still trying to be profitable, if I can get that extra volume in a larger car that is still regulatorally [sic] compliant, they’re [sic] gonna stick with that.”

Richard Kloster of rail consulting firm Alltranstek was one of the more vocal participants during the roundtable and he repeatedly made points about the economics of retrofitting the CPC-1232 over buying the new DOT-117 saying, “The retrofit is always going to win economically.”

Kloster also made it clear where the industry put its priorities when it came to safety versus profit saying, “There has got to be a balance between safety and the economic viability of moving these products by rail” and that there were a “lot of cases, you know, where economics wins all the time but risk trumps economics in some cases.”

Economics wins all the time.

There was one representative from labor at the roundtable who did not offer a comment until the final closing segment, but he also shared the reality of what was driving the decisionmaking when he discussed the need for safety but stated, “I know it’s about money.”

ExxonMobil Wins Again

So, in the end, ExxonMobil and the oil industry have won again. Watching this roundtable and the many congressional hearings and previous NTSB events in the past few years and seeing the lack of progress on real safety improvements, it almost seems like this all was orchestrated from the start.

In the years leading up to the latest tank car rulemaking, the industry essentially ordered a whole new fleet of CPC-1232 cars which they are currently using. The CPC-1232 cars have the thinner tank shells which makes them more prone to puncture and also more profitable. And they are ok to use, unchanged, until 2025. If the industry request is approved, those cars will just need new bottom outlet valves after 2025.

Regardless, they will always have the thinner tank shells, like Exxon wanted.

At the end of the July 13 event, Robert Sumwalt made an interesting statement. He said, “some of us met yesterday to go over the ground rules.”

The meeting where they went over the ground rules was not open to the public or media. If one were to hazard a guess as to what the first and foremost ground rule set was, it would be a safe bet to posit it was that “economics wins all the time.”

Blog Image Credit: Dawn Faught via NTSB


Are Oil Trains Just Too Heavy? No Regulations, No Weigh To Know

Repost from DeSmogBlog
[Editor: Apologies for the ad content. My retired volunteer budget won’t allow the $5 per DeSmog article for no ads.  🙁   – RS]

Are Oil Trains Just Too Heavy? No Regulations, No Weigh To Know

The cause of the most recent bomb train derailment and fire in Mosier, OR has been determined to be lag bolts that had sheared off resulting in the derailment. This once again raises concerns that the unit trains of oil are putting too much stress on the tracks due to their excessive weight and length. There… Continue reading Are Oil Trains Just Too Heavy? No Regulations, No Weigh To Know

Federal Railroad Administrator on newer tank car: “It’s a Pinto with a better bumper instead of just a Pinto”

Repost from PRI’s Living On Earth, Environmental News Magazine
[Editor:  An important interview.  See full transcript below and good links below the transcript.  Click here for audio.  – RS]

Oil Train Safety Off Track

Steve Curwood, Air Date: Week of March 20, 2015
Five oil train derailments in five weeks–some with dangerous fiery consequences. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In the past five weeks, there have been 5 oil train derailments resulting in large fireballs, and more oil was spilled in 2014 than in the last 38 years combined. Steve Kretzmann, Director and Founder of Oil Change International, and Sarah Feinberg, Acting Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, discuss rail safety with host Steve Curwood and offer different solutions to this multifaceted problem.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Boston and PRI, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. At 12 million barrels a day, the US is the world’s leading oil producer, with much of the boost due to fracking technology. With pipelines at capacity the boom has led a 4,000 percent increase in the volume of crude oil that travels by rail, and that brought more accidents and more oil spills in 2014 than over the previous 38 years. Just these past five weeks brought five more derailments, with huge fires and polluted waterways, and some critics say new rail safety rules on the drawing boards won’t go far enough to protect the public or the environment. Steve Kretzmann is Executive Director and Founder of Oil Change International. Welcome to Living on Earth, Steve.

KRETZMANN: Thanks so much for having me here, Steve. It’s great to be back.

CURWOOD: Now, what we are seeing is a lot of crashes and explosions. What’s happening?

KRETZMANN: So we’re seeing, unfortunately, a very visible result of the ‘all of above’ energy policy, playing out with great risks to our communities around North America on a whole. The Bakken oil is very light oil, and it’s very explosive, it turns out, and people have known this, but it hasn’t really stopped them from shipping it via rail. And it’s also worth noting that because that oil is light oil, that’s mixed in with tar sands to form diluted bitumen, which is usually the way tar sands get to market, we’re also seeing tar sands trains now explode, and so they’re just trying to get as much out as fast as they can and maximize their profit. And as we know, the oil market is flooded with crude now and effectively we’re subsidizing that with our safety in our communities and our lives.

CURWOOD: Now, in Texas where there’s a fair amount of fracking for oil, there are machines that remove the most volatile portion, the most explosive part of fracked oil before it is shipped, but in North Dakota it is not. Why this discrepancy? Why don’t they make this safety precaution in North Dakota?

KRETZMANN: Well, it’s about profit, it’s about investment and infrastructure by the industry, so the production in Texas is very close to markets and so when they invest in the infrastructure to remove the lighter petroleum product – natural gas among other things – they can then sell that oil because they can put in the pipelines. On the other hand, North Dakota does not have those gas pipelines and the infrastructure is not there to capture it and so their options are burn it or try to force it into the tank car, which is what they’re doing. There are new regulations that are supposed to take effect from North Dakota that will reduce the amount that they can squeeze in there on a regular basis, but it’s not clear that the regulation is in line with what will actually create a safe car. It’s just slightly less than they’ve been able to get away with.

Older DOT 111 cars usually do not fair well in crashes, even at low speeds. (Photo: Robert Taylor; Flickr Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: Talk to me about the new tanker safety rules and how effective they might be in preventing the kind of explosions we’ve seen on oil train derailments.

KRETZMANN: So it’s not clear what the new rules are going to be. There are the North Dakota rules which are a slight reduction in vapor pressure, and then there are the federal rules, which are under consideration by the Obama administration, and we’re going to see another draft of those supposedly within the next month. But there are very different options that they can take. They could build thicker-walled oiled trains, they could require that, but the oil industry doesn’t like that because it costs them more money. They could install electronically controlled pneumatic brakes on the railcars, but the rail industry doesn’t like that because it costs them too much money. One of the most effective things they could do is introduce a very serious speed limit. The DOT 111s, the old cars, still make up the majority of the crude by rail fleet; they’ve been shown to explode at seven miles an hour. The 1232s, which are the newer supposedly safer cars, but are the ones that have been involved in each one of these accidents recently, have been shown to explode at 15 miles an hour. So, we say you should put in serious restrictions here: all new cars, speed limits at 15 or below, particularly in populated areas. You know the industry gets very upset about that and says, “oh my God, that would mean we would have to stop production”. And you know, the point is “yes”, maybe actually reducing some production in the name of public safety is worth it here.

Steve Kretzmann is the Founder and Executive Director of Oil Change International. (Photo: courtesy of Mr. Kretzmann)

CURWOOD: So you mentioned that communities are at risk from these crude oil trains. What ones come to mind for you?

KRETZMANN: So when you look at the map of where crude oil trains are going around the United States, it’s very clear you start looking at the routes: Minneapolis, Chicago, St. Louis, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit. All these cities have crude by rail trains, these bomb trains running right through them. 25 million Americans live within the blast zone here and it’s sadly not a question of if but when one of these explosions is going to result in a tremendous tragedy. We have the opportunity to slow this down and put a moratorium in place before this happens and we should take it.

CURWOOD: That was Steve Kretzmann of Oil Change International. Well, a moratorium on oil transport by rail is unlikely, and the Obama Administration has yet to issue new rules, even after two years of work. So in the face of the recent accidents it’s issued some emergency rules and here to explain is Sarah Feinberg the Acting Administrator for the Federal Railroad Administration. Welcome to the program.

FEINBERG: Thank you for having me.

CURWOOD: So what do you have in place now in terms of emergency regulations then, emergency rules?

FEINBERG: Well, we have a lot. We have a requirement of railroads to share information about the product that’s being transported with emergency responders in each state. We have an emergency order that’s in place regarding testing and making sure that the right tank car and right packaging is being used for each product. Over the course of a year and a half that I’ve worked on this issue, we were enforcing against violations for not testing the product properly, not packing it in the right container, not handling it the right way, not sharing information about it. I’m not saying things are in a good place now, they certainly aren’t. We’ve got a long way to go, but when I think back to where we were a year and a half ago, it’s amazing to me we’re actually having a conversation about testing then.

A DOT-111 tank car with an insulating jacket and external heating coils can hold 20,000 gallons of crude. (Photo: National Transportation Safety Board; Wikimedia Commons)

CURWOOD: Now, not long ago there was a dramatic explosive derailment in West Virginia that involved the new kinds of cars, the supposedly safer cars, and some folks are saying that apparently having those cars aren’t safe enough. What you say?

FEINBERG: Well, it’s really important to understand the different kinds of cars that are out there. The one we hear about a lot is the DOT 111. That is the older tank car; I think everyone agrees across the board that tank car is certainly outdated. It’s not safe enough to hold this product or others. Industry on its own a few years ago came up with their own version of a tank car that’s called the 1232. While it is a better tank car, and it’s a newer version of a tank car, one person on my team once referred to the 1232 as the .111 with a five-mile per hour bumper on it. So it’s a Pinto with a better bumper instead of just a Pinto. The other most important thing to think about is that all 1232s are not the same. They didn’t have all the safety components that they could have had. They didn’t have a jacket; they didn’t have a thermal shield. These are important components to keep a tank car from basically experiencing the thermal events that create fireballs.

CURWOOD: No matter what kind of car it is, they’re going off the rails. Some folks say that the trains are just simply traveling too fast.

FEINBERG: Look, I mean speed should be a factor, but the reality of is that in all of these derailments, they’ve been very low speed. In fact, the agreements that we have in place with the railroads limit speed at 40 miles an hour. We’re now in a position where we’ve got railroads functioning below the maximum speed and we are still running into problems. There is not a tank car at this moment or even the new version of the tank car we’ve proposed that will survive a derailment above, say, 16 or 18 miles an hour. So that’s one of the reasons why this issue is so complicated. There is literally not a silver bullet. It’s not speed, it’s not a particular tank car, its not the way the train is operated. It’s all of the above and it needs to include, frankly, the product itself that’s being placed in the transport, the product that’s leaving the Bakken and heading to the refinery.

CURWOOD: How safe is it to allow such volatile fuel to be transported on rails?

Sarah Feinberg is the Acting Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration. (Photo: FRA)

FEINBERG: I mean, if I have to be honest, I would prefer that none of this stuff be traveling by rail. I worry a lot about not just the folks who are working on the train and the passengers on the Amtrak that the train is going by, but I worry a lot about the people living in the towns and working in the towns that these trains are going through. Now, we have some routing protocols in place. There is a whole software system that the railroads use when they are trying to determine the right route for a substance like this, so it looks at things like city size, it looks at possible defects on rail, it looks at weather, it looks at speed, it looks at traffic, it looks at all of those factors and it basically spits out the best route for you to take.

CURWOOD: Industry a few days ago went over to the Office of Management and Budget, the folks who review the rule-making there inside of the OMB, and made a lot of complaints about the proposal to have this updated form of braking, they say it won’t have more significant safety benefits, it won’t have much in the way of business benefits and be extremely costly. Sounds like industry is pushing back against getting this stuff under control. Your take?

FEINBERG: Yeah, sure. And I expect that. Look, OMB meets with industry, yet the FRA is required to meet with all interested parties as well. So, as many meetings as I did with industry, I think we all did with the environmental community, small-town mayors, governors and interested members of Congress. So there are a whole lot of folks with a dog in this fight and they all want to talk to the regulator and they all want to talk to the Office of Management and Budget to affect the outcome of the rule. I think at the end of the day it’s OMB’s job and it’s FRA’s job to come up with the best possible rule that we can that will actually address the challenge. To be clear, that’s not an easy thing to do right now. It’s a bit amazing at this point you can take a common sense safety measure and watch the amount of time that it can actually take to turn into a regulation, but you know that’s my frustration, that’s our problem and our issue to deal with, and the main thing is we should just be keeping people safe.

CURWOOD: Sarah Feinberg is the Acting Administrator for the Federal Railroad Administration. Thanks so much for taking the time today.

FEINBERG: Thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: We asked the Association of American Railroads for comment on the proposed new regulations.

Spokesman Ed Greenberg’s reply is posted in full at our website, LOE.org.

It reads, in part: “America’s rail industry believes final regulations on new tank car standards by the federal government would provide certainty for the freight rail industry and shippers and chart a new course in the safe movement of crude oil by rail.”

Coming up…the power of labor allied with environmental activists. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

The Association of American Railroads comment:

“The safety of the nation’s 140,000-mile system is a priority of every railroad that moves the country’s economy and the freight rail industry shares the public’s concern over recent high-profile incidents involving crude oil. This is a complex issue and a shared responsibility with freight railroads and oil shippers, which are responsible for properly classifying tank car contents, working together at further advancing the safe movement of this product.

The fact is, safety is built into every aspect of the freight rail industry, it is embedded through-out train operations and a 24/7 focus for thousands of men & women railroaders. Billions of private dollars are spent on maintaining and modernizing the freight rail system in this country. Since 1980, $575 billion has been spent on safety enhancing rail infrastructure and equipment with another $29 billion, or $80 million a day, planned for 2015.

Railroads have done top-to-bottom operational reviews and voluntarily took a number of steps to further improve the safety of moving crude oil by rail. Actions have included implementing lower speeds, increasing track inspections and track-side safety technology, as well as stepping up outreach and training for first responders in communities along America’s rail network.

Federal statistics show rail safety has dramatically improved over the last several decades with 2014 being the safest year in the history of the rail industry. More than 2 million trains move across our country every year hauling everything Americans want in their personal and business lives with 99.995 percent of cars containing crude oil arriving safely. That said, the freight rail industry recognizes more has to be done to make rail transportation even safer.

Freight railroads do not own or manufacture the tank cars carrying crude oil. Still, the freight rail system has long advocated for tougher federal tank car rules and believe that every tank car moving crude oil today should be phased out or built to a higher standard. We support an aggressive tank car retrofit or replacement program.

America’s rail industry believes final regulations on new tank car standards by the federal government would provide certainty for the freight rail industry and shippers and chart a new course in the safe movement of crude oil by rail.”


Union Pacific aims to be first railroad to haul liquefied natural gas

Repost from The Omaha World-Herald

Union Pacific aims to be first railroad to haul liquefied natural gas

By Russell Hubbard, March 19, 2015 1:00 am
Union Pacific

Union Pacific Railroad has applied for permission to haul liquefied natural gas, which would add another combustible cargo to a U.S. rail network already being criticized for transporting ethanol and crude oil through populated areas.

The Omaha-based railroad said the application for a permit from the Federal Railroad Administration is in response to a request for liquefied natural gas transportation from an existing customer. Union Pacific operates 32,000 miles of track in the western United States, which is home to many natural gas production and storage installations.

If Union Pacific is granted the permit, it would be a first. The Association of American Railroads said none of the six other Class I freight railroads are hauling liquefied natural gas.

The permit application coincides with a major bump in railway ethanol and crude oil cargo, which has attracted heavy opposition after a fatal oil train explosion in Canada in 2013 and three oil train fires so far this year in the United States and one in Canada.

“The timing for U.P. is awkward given recent accidents and mounting public apprehension,” said Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation sciences professor at Chicago’s DePaul University. “I am sure there will be pressure for a go-slow approach on it, but the fact is that railroads are the best bet to get significant amounts of natural gas to market given the decades it takes to permit and construct pipelines.”

Details about the application are secret. A Federal Railroad Administration spokesman said application and supporting materials are not available for public inspection during the review process. “Federal law limits our disclosure” of which customer is requesting transport of liquefied natural gas, Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt said.

Liquefied natural gas, or LNG, however, is a well-known commodity. Liquefying the fuel — which most often moves via pipeline, truck and ship — compacts it enormously. That makes it attractive to shippers and those who want to store large quantities. Liquefied gas takes up 1/600th the space of the gaseous form. The liquid gas can then be converted back into its gaseous state for use or further shipment in pipelines.

Union Pacific’s permit request comes as U.S. natural gas production is climbing, up 37 percent since 2000. Part of the boom is the conversion of coal-burning electric plants to natural gas. There also are 128,000 vehicles in the United States running on compressed natural gas, up 12 percent since 2010.

“It has only been a matter of time for the railroads to get in on the natural gas boom,” Schwieterman said. “It is a fast-growing industry with fast-growing logistical needs.”

But some people are holding back. Eddie Scher, an officer with ForestEthics, a California-based lobbying group that advocates the gradual elimination of fossil fuels, said that transporting another flammable cargo on the rail network is a very poor idea.

“The rail system in America was built to connect population centers, with trains going through every downtown in the country,” Scher said. “It was never designed to haul hazardous materials, and in fact, you could say that if you were to design a rail system for hazardous materials, the one we have is the opposite of the one you would design.”

Scher said federal safety rules are already out of date for oil trains and their tank cars, with millions of gallons of oil a day riding the rails, up from nearly zero only five years ago, courtesy of skyrocketing production from new fields in Montana and North Dakota.

“To entertain the idea of new and potentially more dangerous cargo makes no sense at all,” Scher said.

Hauling dangerous cargo is nothing new for Union Pacific and other railroads, which haul chlorine, explosives and sulfur.

Safety is a main point of emphasis for every cargo, said Hunt, the Union Pacific spokesman. The national train accident rate has fallen 42 percent since 2000 and 79 percent since 1980, according to the railroad association. At Union Pacific, derailments have fallen about 7 percent since 2010, to three for every million miles of train travel.

“We have the same goal as everyone else, and it’s in the best interest of our customers, shareholders and the communities where our employees and their families live, work and play to operate as safely as possible,” Hunt said.