Tag Archives: US Department of Transportation

AP EXCLUSIVE: DOT predicts fuel-hauling trains will derail 10 times a year; cost $4 billion; 100’s killed

Repost from Associated Press News
[Editor: Download the July, 2014 Department of Transportation analysis here.  A word of caution: a reputable source writes, “On a closer inspection, PHMSA conceded that the numbers it used for the analysis are flawed and that the scenarios lined out in the AP story are assuming no new regulations are enacted.”  That said, my source also wrote, “We didn’t need a study to tell us there was a problem.”- RS]

AP Exclusive: Fuel-hauling trains could derail at 10 a year

By Matthew Brown and Josh Funk, Feb. 22, 2015 12:00 PM ET

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – The federal government predicts that trains hauling crude oil or ethanol will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades, causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.

The projection comes from a previously unreported analysis by the Department of Transportation that reviewed the risks of moving vast quantities of both fuels across the nation and through major cities. The study completed last July took on new relevance this week after a train loaded with crude derailed in West Virginia, sparked a spectacular fire and forced the evacuation of hundreds of families.

Monday’s accident was the latest in a spate of fiery derailments, and senior federal officials said it drives home the need for stronger tank cars, more effective braking systems and other safety improvements.

“This underscores why we need to move as quickly as possible getting these regulations in place,” said Tim Butters, acting administrator for the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

The volume of flammable liquids transported by rail has risen dramatically over the last decade, driven mostly by the oil shale boom in North Dakota and Montana. This year, rails are expected to move nearly 900,000 car loads of oil and ethanol in tankers. Each can hold 30,000 gallons of fuel.

Based on past accident trends, anticipated shipping volumes and known ethanol and crude rail routes, the analysis predicted about 15 derailments in 2015, declining to about five a year by 2034.

The 207 total derailments over the two-decade period would cause $4.5 billion in damage, according to the analysis, which predicts 10 “higher consequence events” causing more extensive damage and potential fatalities.

If just one of those more severe accidents occurred in a high-population area, it could kill more than 200 people and cause roughly $6 billion in damage.

“Such an event is unlikely, but such damages could occur when a substantial number of people are harmed or a particularly vulnerable environmental area is affected,” the analysis concluded.

The two fuels travel through communities with an average population density of 283 people per square kilometer, according to the federal analysis. That means about 16 million Americans live within a half-kilometer of one of the lines.

Such proximity is equivalent to the zone of destruction left by a July 2013 oil train explosion that killed 47 people and leveled much of downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec, the analysis said.

Damage at Lac-Megantic has been estimated at $1.2 billion or higher.

A spokesman for the Association of American Railroads said the group was aware of the Department of Transportation analysis but had no comment on its derailment projections.

“Our focus is to continue looking at ways to enhance the safe movement of rail transportation,” AAR spokesman Ed Greenberg said.

Both the railroad group and the Railway Supply Institute, which represents tank car owners and manufacturers, said federal officials had inflated damage estimates and exaggerated risk by assuming an accident even worse than Lac-Megantic, which was already an outlier because it involved a runaway train traveling 65 mph, far faster than others that had accidents.

To get to refineries on the East and West coasts and the Gulf of Mexico, oil shipments travel through more than 400 counties, including major metropolitan areas such as Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, Newark and dozens of other cities, according to routing information obtained by The Associated Press through public record requests filed with more than two dozen states.

Since 2006, the U.S. and Canada have seen at least 21 oil-train accidents and 33 ethanol train accidents involving a fire, derailment or significant amount of fuel spilled, according to federal accident records reviewed by the AP.

At least nine of the trains, including the CSX train that derailed in West Virginia, were hauling oil from the Northern Plains’ Bakken region that is known for being highly volatile. Of those, seven resulted in fires.

Both the West Virginia accident and a Jan. 14 oil train derailment and fire in Ontario involved recently built tank cars that were supposed to be an improvement to a decades-old model in wide use that has proven susceptible to spills, fires and explosions.

Safety officials are pushing to make the tanker-car fleet even stronger and confronting opposition from energy companies and other tank car owners.

Industry representatives say it could take a decade to retrofit and modify more than 50,000 tank cars, not the three years anticipated by federal officials, who assumed many cars would be put to new use hauling less-volatile Canadian tar-sands oil.

The rail industry’s overall safety record steadily improved over the past decade, dropping from more than 3,000 accidents annually to fewer than 2,000 in 2013, the most recent year available, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

But the historical record masks a spike in crude and ethanol accidents over the same time frame. Federal officials also say the sheer volume of ethanol and crude that is being transported – often in trains more than a mile long – sets the two fuels apart.

Most of the proposed rules that regulators are expected to release this spring are designed to prevent a spill, rupture or other failure during a derailment. But they will not affect the likelihood of a crash, said Allan Zarembski, who leads the railroad engineering and safety program at the University of Delaware.

Derailments can happen in many ways. A rail can break underneath a train. An axle can fail. A vehicle can block a crossing. Having a better tank car will not change that, but it should reduce the odds of a tank car leaking or rupturing, he said.

Railroads last year voluntarily agreed to reduce oil train speeds to 40 mph in urban areas. Regulators said they are considering lowering the speed limit to 30 mph for trains not equipped with advanced braking systems. Oil and rail industries say it could cost $21 billion to develop and install the brakes, with minimal benefits.

Obama admin to give companies more time to upgrade DOT-111 & C-1232 tank cars

Repost from Bloomberg Business News

Revised Oil-Train Safety Rule Said to Delay Upgrade Deadline

by Jim Snyder, February 12, 2015

(Bloomberg) — The Obama administration revised its proposal to prevent oil trains from catching fire in derailments, giving companies more time to upgrade their fleets but sticking with a requirement that new tank cars have thicker walls and better brakes.

The changes, described by three people familiar with the proposal who asked not to be identified because the plan has not been made public, are in proposed regulations the U.S. Transportation Department sent to the White House last week for review prior to being released.

The administration is revising safety standards after a series of oil-train accidents, including a 2013 disaster in Canada that killed 47 people when a runaway train derailed and blew up. Earlier this month a train carrying ethanol derailed and caught fire outside of Dubuque, Iowa. No one was hurt.

Companies that own tank cars opposed the aggressive schedule for modifying cars in the DOT’s July draft, saying it would have cost billions of dollars and could slow oil production. That plan gave companies two years to retrofit cars hauling the most volatile crude oil, including from North Dakota’s booming Bakken field.

Railroads and oil companies fought the brake requirement and proposed a standard for the steel walls that was thinner than suggested by the agency.

‘Too Long’
Karen Darch, the mayor of the Chicago suburb of Barrington, Illinois, and an advocate for safer cars, said she was encouraged that the rules included stronger tank cars and upgraded brakes. She disagreed with adding years to the retrofit deadline.

“Taking more time on something that’s already taken too long is problematic,” Darch said Thursday in a phone interview.

Officials in the President Barack Obama’s Office of Management and Budget could change the proposal before the final version is released, probably in May. Darius Kirkwood, a spokesman at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the Transportation Department unit that wrote the rule, said he couldn’t comment on a proposed rule.

“The department has and will continue to put a premium on getting this critical rule done as quickly as possible, but we’ve always committed ourselves to getting it done right,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said this month in a statement about the timing of the safety rule.

Rolling Deadlines
The current proposal would require companies to first upgrade tank cars known as DOT-111s, which safety investigators have said are prone to puncture in rail accidents, according to one of the people. Cars with an extra jacket of protection would remain in use longer before undergoing modifications, according to one of the people.

A newer model known as the CPC-1232, which the industry in 2011 voluntarily agreed to build in response to safety concerns, would have a later deadline than the DOT-111s for modification or replacement, three people said.

The CPC-1232s have more protection at the ends of the cars and than the DOT-111s and a reinforced top fitting.

The draft rule also would require that new tank cars be built with steel shells that are 9/16th of an inch thick, the people said. The walls of the current cars, both DOT-111s and CPC-1232s, are 7/16th of an inch thick.

A joint proposal from the American Petroleum Institute and the Association of American Railroads argued to set the tank-car shell thickness at half an inch, or 8/16ths.

Company Lobbying
Railroads and oil companies also lobbied against a proposal that the trains have electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, which are designed to stop all rolling cars at a same time.

The Association of American Railroads in June told Transportation Department officials that the electronic brakes would cost as much as $15,000 for each car and have only a minimal safety impact.

Trains often haul 100 or more tank cars filled with crude. These trains have increasingly been used to haul crude as oil production has boomed in places, like North Dakota, that don’t have enough pipelines.

Rail shipments of oil surged to 408,000 car loads last year from 11,000 in 2009.

Sacramento Bee editorial: We need open debate on oil train safety

Repost from The Sacramento Bee
[Benicia Independent Editor:  A bit odd that the Bee editorial is defending the rail industry’s right to talk to the media and to lobby congress.  Nice, though, when the Bee writes, “Thankfully, officials in Benicia actually listened to people who exercised free speech.  They announced last week they will redo parts of an environmental study….”  A call for open debate is a good thing.  However, the House subcommittee’s urging for timely new rules on tank car safety is infinitely more important than Rep. Denham’s comment and the Bee’s response.  For a more substantive article on the subcommittee proceedings, see the CQ Roll Call story.  – RS]

We need open debate on oil train safety

By the Editorial Board, 02/10/2015
Rep. Jeff Denham, chairman of the House Transportation Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, questions a witness last year.
Rep. Jeff Denham, chairman of the House Transportation Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, questions a witness last year. Pete Marovich / MCT Tribune News Service

As oil trains rumble through the Sacramento region, a key House panel held an important hearing on how rail and pipelines can keep up – safely – with the boom in domestic oil production. For two hours, top rail and oil industry executives testified and answered questions on this crucial issue.

Then Rep. Jeff Denham had to go and spoil it.

The Turlock Republican, chairman of the House Transportation Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, ended last week’s hearing on an unfortunate note – an unnecessary dressing down of a rail car manufacturing executive who called on federal regulators to speed up the rollout of safer oil tank cars.

Though his firm (which has a repair shop in Modesto) would benefit financially, Greg Saxton, senior vice president and chief engineer at the Greenbrier Companies, happens to be right. The National Transportation Safety Board, which put rail tank car safety on its “most wanted” list for 2015, points out that more than 100,000 outdated cars carry crude, increasing the risk of leaks and explosions. Denham also says he’s concerned that the U.S. Department of Transportation missed its own Jan. 30 deadline to submit new rules on oil tank cars.

So what was Saxton’s transgression, according to Denham? He had the temerity to talk to lowly newspaper editorial writers, as well as esteemed members of Congress.

Denham lectured Saxton that he didn’t want the “wrong people” – whoever they are – “talking to the ed boards across the country” and creating a “misperception” that “our industry” is unsafe.

“I just want to make sure we’re all singing the same tune that we have a very safe industry and we want to work together in improving that industry,” the congressman said, as pointed out by Mike Dunbar, opinions page editor at The Modesto Bee who talked to Saxton last month.

Last time we checked, acting as a public relations consultant for the oil industry isn’t Denham’s job. He should care much more about keeping his constituents in Modesto and Turlock safe. As chairman of this important panel, he should encourage open debate. Instead, his spokeswoman said Tuesday, Denham stands by his remarks to Saxton.

Thankfully, officials in Benicia actually listened to people who exercised free speech.

They announced last week they will redo parts of an environmental study on the proposal for two 50-car oil trains a day to traverse Sacramento and other Northern California cities on the way to the Valero refinery in Benicia.

Benicia officials are responding to environmental groups, Sacramento-area officials and Attorney General Kamala Harris, who had all properly pointed out that the report fell short in analyzing potential oil spills and fires in the middle of urban areas and didn’t even consider possible harm east of Roseville.

The updated study, to be released June 30, also needs to at least consider suggestions from Sacramento and Davis leaders that Union Pacific Railroad be required to give advance notice of oil shipments to emergency responders and be banned from parking oil trains in urban areas.

They’re the sorts of ideas that people might just want to explain to a congressional committee – or perhaps even an editorial board.

U.S. Senators on new safety rules: Hurry up! or maybe… Slow Down!

[Editor: The news on Wednesday, January 28 carried two stories about U.S. Senators, one urging speed and the other urging delay in the Obama administration’s effort to – finally after over 20 years of delays – pass new rules governing rail transport of crude oil and other hazmat materials.  Washington Senator Maria Cantwell: the Department of Transportation should “move its behind.”  South Dakota Senator John Thune: the government is “moving too quickly.”    Read both stories below.  – RS]

Get moving on oil train safety rules, Cantwell tells Obama administration

Seattle PI, By Joel Connelly, January 28, 2015
In this image made available by the City of Lynchburg, several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil in flames after derailing in downtown Lynchburg, Va., Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (AP Photo/City of Lynchburg, LuAnn Hunt)
Several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil in flames after derailing in downtown Lynchburg, Va., Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (AP Photo/City of Lynchburg, LuAnn Hunt)

With 19 oil trains passing through Washington towns and cities each week, the U.S. Department of Transportation should move its behind, finalize and enforce safety rules for tanker cars, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said Wednesday.

“We should go faster: The administration should get those recommendations implemented,” Cantwell said at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing.

“My constituents are now seeing trains through every major city in our state: They’re literally hitting Spokane through the Tri-Cities, through Vancouver, up through Tacoma, Seattle, Everett and then up to the refineries.”  (…continued)

Thune urges White House to delay tank car safety rules

Argus Leader, By Christopher Doering, USA TODAY, January 28, 2015
poet ethanol Chancellor
Jeff Hansen tightens the bolts on top of an ethanol rail car after filling it Thursday at the POET ethanol plant in Chancellor, Jan. 27, 2011. (Elisha Page/Argus Leader)

WASHINGTON – An Obama administration effort to boost the safety of tank cars used to transport crude and other materials by train could disrupt the country’s already congested rail network if an unrealistic proposal is allowed to go forward, the head of the powerful Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee said Wednesday.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who chairs the Senate panel that oversees the country’s railroads, said the government was moving too quickly with a proposal for phasing out or retrofitting older freight-rail tank cars known as DOT-111 that carry crude oil and ethanol. The Transportation Department is to finalize the regulations on May 12, before giving the rail industry two years to comply.  (…continued)