PHMSA to propose rail tank car safety improvements

The US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is considering steps to improve rail tank car safety requirements and will accept public comments on the proposals for 60 days, it said in an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking.

The proposals are designed to improve transportation of hazardous materials by rail, including growing shipments of crude oil. They came less than 2 months after a parked freight train carrying Bakken crude to an eastern Canadian refinery went out of control and derailed near Lac-Megantic in Quebec, causing a fire which took 47 lives and caused extensive property damage.

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board is continuing its investigation of the July 6 accident. PHMSA said its Sept. 4 ANPRM follows the collection of stakeholder input on rail safety, including eight petitions for rulemaking and four National Transportation Safety Board recommendations.

The recommendations include enhanced tank head and shell puncture resistance systems as well as top fittings protection that exceed current requirements for DOT 111 tank cars, a type of nonpressure tank car commonly used in North America, the US Department of Transportation agency said.

These steps reflect recommendations from NTSB investigations, while PHMSA has already addressed a fifth recommendation with the issuance of an advisory bulletin regarding the protection of pipeline facilities near railways, it indicated.

“Now is the time to make sure safety regulations are robust enough for the increased [hazardous materials] movement on our rails, roads and in our pipelines,” PHMSA Administrator Cynthia Quarterman said. “This proposal is the vehicle for collecting and sharing the best ideas. Rail safety is a national priority, and I encourage everyone to participate and be part of the solution.”

Visited Bakken

Quarterman recently visited the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and Montana, where she observed rail operations and the application of DOT regulations in an area where oil and gas production has doubled in the past three years. Activity there is having a significant impact on the nation’s transportation system as operators move the high-quality crude on trains, trucks, and pipelines to locations throughout the US and Canada, according to PHMSA.

The Federal Railroad Administration, another DOT agency that enforces the rail safety requirements PHMSA develops for hazardous materials, issued an emergency order and safety advisory Aug. 2 in response to the Lac-Megantic accident. The order, which all US railroads had to implement within 30 days, stated no train or vehicles carrying specified hazardous materials can be left unattended on a mainline or side track outside a yard or terminal unless specifically authorized.

It also said all employees responsible for securing such trains or vehicles must let dispatchers know the number of hand brakes applied, the train or vehicle’s tonnage and length, the track’s grade and terrain features, any relevant weather conditions, and the type of equipment being secured.

A dispatcher or other qualified railroad employee will have to verify that the securement meets the railroad’s requirements, FRA’s order said. The safety advisory, which it issued along with PHMSA, outlined additional recommendations.

When FRA held a public hearing Aug. 28 on issues arising from the Lac-Megantic accident, witnesses representing US chemical manufacturers said it is equally important to address accident prevention and response as it is to consider redesigning rail tanker cars.

But another speaker urged US President Barack Obama to fully use his executive authority to make rail shippers of crude oil and other hazardous materials disclose cargoes’ volumes and chemical properties, and use routes that avoid populated areas.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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