US, Canadian transportation boards want tougher oil-by-rail rules

In an unprecedented move, the US and Canadian national transportation boards simultaneously called for tougher regulations covering shipments of crude oil by rail.

“The large-scale shipment of crude oil by rail simply didn’t exist 10 years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up with this new reality,” US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman said in Washington, DC.

“While this energy boom is good for business, the people and the environment along rail corridors must be protected from harm,” she said.

In its announcement, NTSB said crude oil shipments by rail have increased more than 400% since 2005, according to the Association of American Railroads’ Annual Report of Hazardous Materials.

The independent federal agency said it is concerned that lives can be lost, property damaged, and the environment harmed when large volumes of crude or other flammable liquids are transported on a single train involved in an accident, such as one on July 6 near Lac-Megantic in Quebec, as well as several incidents NTSB has investigated in the US.

‘Three critical weaknesses’

“In the course of our Lac Megantic investigation, we found three critical weaknesses in the North American rail system which must be urgently addressed,” said Wendy Tadros, who chairs Canada’s TSB in Ottawa. “Today we are making three recommendations calling for tougher standards for Class 111 tank cars; route planning and analysis; and emergency response assistance plans.”

NTSB’s three recommendations to the Federal Railroad Administration and the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration—the two US Department of Transportation agencies that oversee rail transportation safety—would require railroads to expand hazardous materials route planning to avoid populated and other sensitive areas.

Like Canada’s TSB, NTSB wants FRA and PHMSA to develop an audit program to ensure US rail carriers that transport crude oil, ethanol, or petroleum products are capable of adequately responding to worst-case discharges of the entire quantity of product carried on a train. It also called for shippers and carriers to be audited to ensure that they are properly classifying hazardous materials in transportation and that they have adequate safety and security plans in place.

Canada’s TSB also called for tougher standards for all Class 111 tank cars, not just new ones. It said it found at Lac-Megantic that older unprotected Class 111 tank cars ruptured even at lower speeds, spilling crude that ignited in a blaze that killed 42 people and damaged property extensively.

It issued its recommendations to Transport Canada and, in the case of tank cars, also to PHMSA in the US. NTSB said it has investigated several accidents involving flammable liquids in DOT-111 tank cars, most recently a Dec. 30, 2013, derailment in Casselton, ND (OGJ Online, Jan. 13, 2014).

NTSB’s 2009 recommendations

Following its investigation of a June 19, 2009, derailment in Cherry Valley, Ill., NTSB said it issued several recommendations to PHMSA regarding inadequate design and poor performance of the DOT-111 tank cars.

These included making the tank head and shell more puncture resistant and requiring that bottom outlet valves remain closed during incidents. PHMSA initiated rule-making to address the safety issues but did not issue any new rules, NTSB said.

“If unit trains of flammable liquids are going to be part of our nation’s energy future, we need to make sure the hazardous materials classification is accurate, the route is well planned, and the tank cars are as robust as possible,” NTSB Chief Hersman said.

“If North American railways are to carry more and more of these flammable liquids through our communities, it must be done safely,” said TSB Chairwoman Tadros. “Change must come and it must come now.”

In response to the two boards’ recommendations, Association of American Railroads Pres. Edward R. Hamberger said the group “is in full agreement…as they align with our previous calls for increased federal tank car safety standards as well as the work the industry is undertaking with our customers and the [Obama] administration in an environment of shared responsibility for the safe movement of America’s energy products.”

Contact Nick Snow at

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