In the wake of last summer's highly publicized accident in which a train hauling crude oil crashed into the center of a Canadian town and killed 45 people, the freight rail industry is pressing the federal government to raise the standards for tank cars used to transport flammable liquids.
In comments filed earlier this month with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)
, part of the Department of Transportation, the American Association of Railroads and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association called on regulators to require that all tank cars used to carry liquids such as crude oil and ethanol to be retrofitted or phased out, and new cars built to more stringent standards to decrease the likelihood of a release if a car is involved in an accident.
The AAR estimates that about 92,000 tank cars currently in service move flammable liquids, with approximately 78,000 of those requiring a retrofit or a phase-out based on its proposal. Another 14,000 newer tank cars that comply with the latest industry safety standards will also require certain retrofit modifications under the AAR proposal.
Crude oil is a small but rapidly growing line of business for railroads as energy companies in the past few years have taken advantage of new high-tech drilling techniques to pump oil out of shale rock formations in The Plains states and other parts of the country. Domestic oil production is growing so fast that last month it exceeded U.S. oil imports for the first time since 1995, although the drop in imports can also be attributed to less consumption because of more fuel-efficient vehicles and high prices that have dampened demand.
"We believe it's time for a thorough review of the U.S. tank car fleet that moves flammable liquids, particularly considering the recent increase in crude oil traffic," AAR President Edward R. Hamberger said in a statement. "Our goal is to ensure that what we move, and how we move it, is done as safely as possible."
The AAR is recommending that PHMSA should:
- Increase federal tank car design standards for new cars to include an outer steel jacket around the tank car and thermal protection, full-height head shields, and high-flow capacity pressure relief valves;
- Require additional safety upgrades to those tank cars built since October 2011, when the rail industry instituted its latest design standards that exceed federal requirements, including installation of high-flow capacity relief valves and design modifications to prevent bottom outlets from opening in the case of an accident;
- Aggressively phase out older-model tank cars used for flammable liquids that are not retrofitted to meet new federal requirements; and
- Eliminate the current option for rail shippers to classify a flammable liquid with a flash point between 100 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit as a combustible liquid.
Rail cars ordered since October 2011 have been built to a higher standard. The higher standard is a consensus position reached between railroads, rail car operators, shippers and suppliers. The industry coalition opted to initially focus on applying the standard to new car builds because of the spike in demand for capacity to haul crude oil, AAR spokeswoman Holly Arthur said.
She disputed some reports that the industry is reluctant to retrofit older cars, saying a document filed with PHMSA about the changes only mentioned in a footnote that a National Transportation Safety Board recommendation to modify the weld that holds the tank to the bottom of the rail car was not feasible. The AAR's new comments on PHMSA's advanced notice of proposed rulemaking does include other retrofit suggestions.
Arthur said freight railroads felt it was important to lay down safety standards because they want to ensure their continued ability to haul crude oil.