Tag Archives: NTSB

DOT-111 tank cars inadequate, but rolling through our cities today

Repost from PublicSource
[Editor: two significant excerpts: “While federal officials work on new safety requirements for DOT-111 tank cars, these cars are out there carrying crude oil, rolling through Pennsylvania daily…” AND “The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency recently struck an agreement with CSX railroad to get real-time information on the tracking of hazardous material shipments, including crude oil, in the state.” – RS]

Rail cars moving crude oil need makeover

By Natasha Khan | PublicSource | March 25, 2014

Train Derailment 2006: Flames continue to burn a day after a Norfolk Southern train derailed on Oct. 21, 2006, in New Brighton. Flames continue to burn a day after a Norfolk Southern train derailed on Oct. 21, 2006, in New Brighton, Pa. (Photo by Lucy Schaly / Beaver County Times)

Walking with his daughter from a Friday night football game in New Brighton, Pa., Fire Chief Jeffrey Bolland heard what sounded like a jet overhead and saw an orange glow in the distance.

Twenty-three rail tank cars of ethanol derailed on a bridge above the Beaver River on that night in 2006, setting off an explosion that burned for 48 hours. Some of the black, torpedo-shaped cars tumbled into the river.

No one was injured, but 150 people were evacuated and a nearly multi-million dollar cleanup ensued in the city about 30 miles Northwest of Pittsburgh.

The rail cars in the accident were DOT-111s, designed in the early 1960s and originally used to haul non-hazardous materials such as corn syrup. Now, they are the worker bees for the glut of crude oil and ethanol being transported across Pennsylvania and the country.

“The same old clunkers are still out there,” said Fred Millar, a Washington, D.C., consultant to the rail industry. “They’re Pepsi cans on wheels.”

For more than 20 years, safety officials have warned about these cars as accidents involving them have multiplied. One of the worst was in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in July 2013, when 47 people died after a runaway train carrying Bakken crude oil from North Dakota exploded, decimating the town.

Now, state, federal and industry officials are demanding that regulations be put in place to improve the safety of the cars, which are “subject to damage and catastrophic loss of hazardous materials” when trains derail, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

After two recent derailments in Pennsylvania — one in Westmoreland County, one in Philadelphia — involving the cars and crude oil, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx.

“Steps must be taken to make rail cars safer and to ensure greater transparency in the transportation of hazardous materials,” Casey wrote.


A sharp increase in North American crude-oil production — mainly because of fracking — has pushed a high percentage of crude oil onto the tracks.

In 2008, there were 9,500 carloads of crude oil on the tracks in the country. In 2013 that number ballooned to 415,000 carloads, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR).

The amount of crude oil spilled last year was more than the total amount spilled  in the 37 previous years, according to an analysis of federal data by McClatchy Newspapers.

“Most times, people don’t want regulations, [but] in this case, everybody wants them,” said Anthony Hatch, a rail transportation analyst and consultant.

Rolling through PA

Pennsylvanians usually associate fracking with natural gas, but much of the crude oil being fracked in the North Dakota Bakken Shale formation goes to refineries in and around Philadelphia, which include Philadelphia Energy Solutions, the largest refiner of Bakken crude.

Railway officials don’t reveal their routes for hazardous materials for security reasons, and aren’t required to by law. However, a state official said Bakken crude does come through Pittsburgh on the way to Philly.

And the number of trains carrying crude oil through Pennsylvania are set to spike with the opening of a new crude oil terminal in Eddystone in Delaware County at the end of April. Trains carrying more than 80,000 barrels of North Dakota crude oil are expected to arrive daily.

Virtually no one in the rail and oil industries anticipated that railroads would be a primary mode of transporting the massive amounts of newly fracked crude oil in North America, said Hatch, the rail industry analyst.

“Nobody saw it coming,” he said.

Now, federal regulations need to play “catch up” with this reality, said Deborah A.P. Hersman, former chairwoman of the NTSB, in a statement.

“The large-scale shipment of crude oil by rail simply didn’t exist 10 years ago,” she said.

Now the NTSB — which investigates accidents, but doesn’t regulate railroads — and others are insisting that regulations be written covering the DOT-111s and other rail cars.

“Right now, there is so much uncertainty that people aren’t going to make investments in safer cars and they’re going to keep running these crummy cars and killing people,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., at a U.S. House subcommittee hearing focused on rail safety in February.

The job of writing the regulations falls to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

In September, PHMSA put out a notice asking for comments from citizens, environmental and industry groups, and railroad companies on proposed rules to improve the design of the DOT-111 tank car, as well as other safety rules.

PHMSA officials said they’ve been busy since the comment period ended in December analyzing numerous comments on the rules. But changes aren’t pegged to come until early 2015, according to the agency’s timeline.

This month, a Senate panel grilled regulators on taking too long to pass regulations improving the tank cars used to haul crude.

The panel’s chairman, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he was “disappointed and disturbed by some of the delays and failures in rulemaking and scrutiny.”

PHMSA head Cynthia L. Quarterman told the panel that her agency is working as fast as possible.

A PHMSA spokesman, Joe Delcambre, told PublicSource in an email that “it was crucial to get input from a wide variety of stakeholders, including shippers and carriers, state and local officials and concerned citizens.”

The AAR estimates there are 92,000 DOT-111 tank cars used to transport hazardous chemicals and that more than 75,000 of those would need to be retrofitted or possibly to be phased out. These tank cars are not usually owned by railroads but by chemical or oil producers and leasing agencies.

Inspection blitzes 

While federal officials work on new safety requirements for DOT-111 tank cars, these cars are out there carrying crude oil, rolling through Pennsylvania daily, said Christina Simeone, director of PennFuture’s energy center, an environmental advocacy group in Pennsylvania.

Simeone said that during the year or so it may take for federal rules to pass, state and local officials should do inspection blitzes of tank cars and rail lines carrying hazardous materials.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which works with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to inspect rail operations, is now focused on inspecting tracks and rail equipment that carries crude oil shipments, a spokeswoman wrote in an email.

Railroad officials seem to be willing to communicate information about their shipments to state officials.

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency recently struck an agreement with CSX railroad to get real-time information on the tracking of hazardous material shipments, including crude oil, in the state.

“It will better prepare [state emergency workers] to respond to any incidents that may occur,” said Cory Angell, a spokesman with the agency, who added that his agency is also reaching out to the Norfolk Southern line for a similar agreement.

And officials at both major PA railroads have said they’ve helped train local emergency responders across the state.

Reach Natasha Khan at 412-315-0261 or at nkhan@publicsource.org.


PublicSource is an investigative news group in Western Pennsylvania. Learn more at publicsource.org.

New York Times: Accidents surge

Repost from the New York Times

Accidents Surge as Oil Industry Takes the Train


In North Dakota Town, Virtual Pipelines Prompt Concern
Jim Wilson/The New York Times

CASSELTON, N.D. — Kerry’s Kitchen is where Casselton residents gather for gossip and comfort food, especially the caramel rolls baked fresh every morning. But a fiery rail accident last month only a half mile down the tracks, which prompted residents to evacuate the town, has shattered this calm, along with people’s confidence in the crude-oil convoys that rumble past Kerry’s seven times a day.

What was first seen as a stopgap measure in the absence of pipelines has become a fixture in the nation’s energy landscape — about 200 “virtual pipelines” that snake in endless processions across the horizon daily. It can take more than five minutes for a single oil train, made up of about 100 tank cars, to pass by Kerry’s, giving this bedroom community 20 miles west of Fargo a front-row seat to the growing practice of using trains to carry oil.

“I feel a little on edge — actually very edgy — every time one of those trains passes,” said Kerry Radermacher, who owns the coffee shop. “Most people think we should slow the production, and the trains, down.”

Moving More Oil Over Rails

As domestic oil production has increased rapidly in recent years, more and more of it is being transported by rail because of the lack of pipeline capacity. The trains often travel through populated areas, leading to concerns among residents over the hazards they can pose, including spills and fires.

Some major oil freight railroad lines  Source: Union Pacific; Energy Information Administration; Association of American Railroads

Casselton is near the center of the great oil and gas boom unleashed these last few years. And it has seen up close how trains have increasingly been used to transport the oil from the new fields of Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, in part as a result of delays in the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. About 400,000 carloads of crude oil traveled by rail last year to the nation’s refineries, up from 9,500 in 2008, according to the Association of American Railroads.

But a series of recent accidents — including one in Quebec last July that killed 47 people and another in Alabama last November — have prompted many to question these shipments and have increased the pressure on regulators to take an urgent look at the safety of the oil shipments.

In the race for profits and energy independence, critics say producers took shortcuts to get the oil to market as quickly as possible without weighing the hazards of train shipments. Today about two-thirds of the production in North Dakota’s Bakken shale oil field rides on rails because of a shortage of pipelines. And more than 10 percent of the nation’s total oil production is shipped by rail. Since March there have been no fewer than 10 large crude spills in the United States and Canada because of rail accidents. The number of gallons spilled in the United States last year, federal records show, far outpaced the total amount spilled by railroads from 1975 to 2012.

Railroad executives, meeting with the transportation secretary and federal regulators recently, pledged to look for ways to make oil convoys safer — including slowing down the trains or rerouting them from heavily populated areas. (Trains go up to roughly 35 miles an hour through towns and at higher speeds outside populated areas.) They also agreed to speed up a review of tougher standards for the train cars used for oil. And last Thursday, safety officials urged regulators to quickly improve industry standards.

“This is an industry that has developed overnight, and they have been playing catch-up with the infrastructure,” said Deborah A. P. Hersman, the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the Casselton accident. “A lot of what we’ve seen could have been a lot worse.”

But given the fragmented nature of the business — different companies produce the oil, own the rail cars, and run the railroads — there is no firm consensus on what to do. And few analysts expect new regulations this year.

“There was no political pressure to address this issue in the past, but there clearly is now,” said Brigham A. McCown, a former administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “Producers need to understand that rail-car safety can become an impediment to production.”

The stakes are high. In five years, domestic oil production has jumped by 50 percent, to reach 7.5 million barrels a day last year.

But with little pipeline infrastructure, energy producers had to scramble for new ways to get their oil to refiners. Rail was the answer.

“The reality is that this came out of nowhere,” said Anthony B. Hatch, a rail transport consultant. “Rail has gone from near-obsolescence to being critical to oil supplies. It’s as if the buggy-whips were back in style.”

Far more toxic products are shipped on trains. But those products, like chlorine, are transported in pressurized vessels designed to survive an accident. Crude oil, on the other hand, is shipped in a type of tank car that entered service in 1964 and that has been traditionally used for nonflammable hazardous liquids like liquid fertilizers.

Safety officials have warned for more than two decades that these cars were unsuited to carry flammable cargo: their shell can puncture and tears up too easily in a crash.

In 2009, a train carrying ethanol derailed and exploded, killing one person in Cherry Valley, Ill. The National Transportation Safety Board said the inadequate design of the tank cars made them “subject to damage and catastrophic loss of hazardous materials.”

After that accident, railroads and car owners agreed in 2011 to beef up new cars with better protections and thicker steel. But they resisted improving safety features on the existing fleet because of cost. They also argued that thousands of new cars were being ordered anyway, so it would be just a matter of time before the fleet was replaced.

But analysts said that time has run out; railroads and car owners can no longer ignore the liabilities associated with oil trains, which could reach $1 billion in the Quebec accident.

“Quebec shocked the industry,” Mr. Hatch said, adding that while rail safety has improved over all, “the consequences of any accident are rising.”

Last November, the Association of American Railroads said it would support requiring that the 92,000 tank cars used to transport flammable liquids, including crude oil, be retrofitted with better safety features or “aggressively phased out.”

Still, other groups have resisted. The Railway Supply Institute, which represents freight car owners, told regulators three weeks before the Casselton accident that existing cars “already provide substantial protection in the event of a derailment” and suggested minor modifications to be phased in over 10 years.

While the safety record of railroads has improved in recent years, the surge in oil transportation has meant a spike in spill rates. From 1975 to 2012, federal records show, railroads spilled 800,000 gallons of crude oil. Last year alone, they spilled more than 1.15 million gallons, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. And that figure does not include the Casselton spill, estimated at about 400,000 gallons.

The accidents have also created a sense of weariness among elected officials and even staunch oil backers.

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, a Republican, insisted that the first priority was improving tank cars. “These exploding tank cars are obviously very powerful and very dangerous,” he said.

The accidents have brought another problem to light. Crude oil produced in the Bakken appears to be a lot more volatile than other grades of oil, something that could explain why the oil trains have had huge explosions.

Here too, the warnings came too late.

Federal regulators started analyzing samples from a few Bakken wells last year to test their flammability. In an alert issued on Jan. 2, P.H.M.S.A. said the crude posed a “significant fire risk” in an accident.

The Federal Railroad Administration also pointed to rising numbers of oil cars that showed a “form of severe corrosion” on the inside of the tanks, covers and valves.

After the recent meeting with regulators, the American Petroleum Institute pledged it would share its own test data about the oil, which they have said is proprietary.

While the tank cars themselves have not caused any accident, they failed to contain their cargo. That happened on the outskirts of Casselton when a 106-car oil train crashed into a soybean train that derailed on a parallel track.

In a preliminary report, the N.T.S.B. said 18 of the 20 oil tank cars that derailed were punctured. Much of the oil spilled was incinerated by the explosions, and some soaked into nearby corn fields.

Aside from evacuating nearby farms, there was little the fire department could do but watch the train burn.

Tim McLean, Casselton’s fire chief, pictured what the town would look like if an oil train derailed. The large propane supply tank would explode “like a bomb” and incinerate two multifamily houses next to it. Five blocks to the west are a lumber yard and two gasoline stations. Oil might accumulate in storm sewers and possibly spread a fire underground.

“There’s virtually no way we could protect these buildings,” he said as he passed the barber shops, drugstore and pizza parlor, all occupying sturdy brick buildings more than a century old. “It would be too hot.”

The terror of what might have happened hit many here immediately.

Adrian Kieffer, the assistant fire chief, rushed to the accident and spent nearly 12 hours there, finishing at 3 a.m. “When I got home that night, my wife said let’s sell our home and move,” he said.

A version of this article appears in print on January 26, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Accidents Surge as Oil Industry Takes the Train

KPIX report: Feds Raise Concerns

Repost from KPIX  Channel 5 / CBS News Bay Area

Feds Raise Concerns Over Transporting Crude Oil By Rail

Federal officials have sounded the alarm over shipping crude oil by rail, following a series of accidents. The announcement comes as two Bay Area cities consider proposals to accept the shipments. Christin Ayers reports.

KPIX Report: Detailing a New Danger, 23 Jan 2014
KPIX Report: Detailing a New Danger, 23 Jan 2014

Download NTSB letters:

NTSB: Oil Train Crash Risks ‘Major Loss of Life’

Repost from Associated Press

Jan 23, 12:51 PM EST
AP Photo
AP Photo/Bruce Crummy

WASHINGTON (AP) — Warning that a “major loss of life” could result from an accident involving the increasing use of trains to transport large amounts of crude oil, U.S. and Canadian accident investigators urged their governments Thursday to impose new safety rules.

The unusual joint recommendations by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada include better route planning for trains carrying hazardous materials to avoid populated and other sensitive areas.

They also recommended stronger efforts to ensure hazardous cargo is properly classified before shipment, and greater government oversight to ensure rail carriers that transport oil are capable of responding to “worst-case discharges of the entire quantity of product carried on a train.”

Last month an oil train derailed and exploded near Casselton, N.D., creating intense fires. The accident occurred about a mile outside the town, and no one was hurt. Rail lines run through and alongside the town.

In July, a runaway oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, near the U.S. border. Forty-seven people were incinerated and 30 buildings destroyed.

The NTSB noted that crude oil shipments by rail have increased by more than 400 percent since 2005. Some oil trains are more than 100 cars long.

“The NTSB is concerned that major loss of life, property damage and environmental consequences can occur when large volumes of crude oil or other flammable liquids are transported on single train involved in an accident,” NTSB said.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx met with oil and railroad executives last week, pressing them to come up voluntary changes in the way oil is transported to increase safety. He asked industry officials to report back to him within 30 days.

Edward Hamberger, president of the railroad association, reaffirmed the freight rail industry’s commitment to moving oil safely by train in a speech Thursday to energy and financial industry executives.

“We share the secretary’s sense of urgency and want to help instill public confidence in rail’s ability to meet the demand for moving more energy resources in this country,” Hamberger said in a summary of his speed provided by the rail association.

U.S. crude oil production is forecast to reach 8.5 million barrels per day by the end of 2014 – up from 5 million barrels per day in 2008. The increase is overwhelmingly due to the fracking boom in North Dakota’s Bakken region.

U.S. freight railroads transported nearly 234,000 carloads of crude oil in 2012, up from just 9,500 in 2008. Early data suggest that rail carloads of crude surpassed 400,000 in 2013, according to the Association of American Railroads.

“The large-scale ship of crude oil by rail simply didn’t exist 10 years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up with this new reality,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said in a statement. “While this energy boom is good for business, the people and the environment along rail corridors must be protected from harm.”

Freight rail lines across the U.S. frequently run through densely populated areas, from small towns to large cities. Many of the lines were laid out in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The NTSB noted that it is still waiting for final action from government regulators on recommendations made in 2009 regarding improving the safety of tank cars used to transport oil and other hazardous materials.