U.S., Canada unveil rules to boost oil train safety

Oil train
A train transporting oil crossed a bridge over Rice Creek in Fridley, Minn., Monday, July 28, 2014. The Rice Creek location is the site of a 2011 train derailment that caused tons of corn to be spilled into the creek and an adjacent lake.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2014

Rail tank cars that are used to transport most crude oil and many other flammable liquids will have to be built to stronger standards to reduce the risk of catastrophic train crash and fire under a series of new rules unveiled Friday by U.S. and Canadian transportation officials.

The regulations, which go into effect Oct. 1, are in response to a series of fiery train crashes in the U.S. and Canada, including four so far this year. Under the rules, new tank cars carrying the most volatile liquids must have an outer shell, a thermal lining, improved top and bottom fittings and thicker 9/16ths-inch steel walls to keep them from rupturing.

Thousands of older tank cars that are more prone to rupture will have to be phased out within three years. Some newer tank cars built to a voluntary standard agreed to by the industry in 2011 must be phased out within five years.

Trains of at least 70 cars, including one containing the most volatile class of liquids, also must have electronically controlled brakes that automatically stop all the cars in a train at the same time, instead of sequentially. The braking requirement goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2021. But it will be extended to all flammable-liquid trains after 2023.

Industry has fought the changes. The oil industry had lobbied for tank car walls to be a half-inch thick, instead of 9/16ths. The thicker the shell, the less oil a tank car can hold. With about a half-million carloads of crude hauled by rail in the U.S. and Canada last year, the cost difference could add up.

Railroads had fought the new braking requirements, saying it will cost them billions of dollars for little or no added safety benefit.

But the regulations describe the brakes as an "important, service-proven technology" that has operated successfully for years on some trains in the U.S. and Australia.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Canada's Minister of Transport, Lisa Raitt, said at a news conference that it was necessary to harmonize regulations because oil trains go back and forth across the border between the two nations.

The Obama administration has been under intense pressure from members of Congress as well as from state and local officials to ensure the safety of oil trains that traverse the country after leaving the Bakken region of North Dakota. 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.

Major freight railroads are already operating under an emergency order that limits oil trains to no more 40 mph in "high threat" urban areas. However, investigators have said the trains in most of the recent accidents were traveling at less than 40 mph but still derailed.

The most serious accident occurred in July 2013, when a runaway oil train derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, just across the border from Maine, killing 47 people.

The tank cars in the recent accidents were built to a voluntary standard written by industry representatives in 2011 to answer criticism that cars used to transport flammable liquids were prone to rupture in an accident and spill their contents and ignite spectacular fires. But most recent accidents show that the newer cars — known as 1232s — also are prone to rupture, even at slow speeds.

The number of accidents is going up because the oil boom in the U.S. and Canada has dramatically increased the amount of oil shipped by rail. Last year, railroads moved 493,126 tank cars of crude oil, compared to 407,761 in 2013. That's up from just 9,500 cars in 2008, before the hydraulic fracturing boom took off in the Bakken region of North Dakota, Montana and Canada, as well as in other areas.

Most of the accidents in the U.S., as well as the Lac-Megantic derailment, involved trains hauling Bakken crude. Government tests show Bakken crude is often more volatile than most crude oil.

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