Railroads could improve volatile liquids safety regime, study finds

Oct. 16, 2017

US railroads have an opportunity to create a more robust safety system to transport crude oil and ethanol resembling pipeline and maritime carriers' generally more effective regimes, an Oct. 11 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine said.

But the 2-year study for the Transportation Research Board, which also evaluated pipeline and maritime transportation, found that while rail tank cars have been redesigned in response to crude and ethanol train derailments and spills since 2006, more attention needs to be paid to track wear and defects.

Investigations indicate that these are the most common causes of derailments, the report said. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regulations, which establish maximum failure rates per track-mile, are performance-based to encourage innovation in identifying, assessing, and repairing defects, it noted.

"Questions remain, however, about the technical basis for the allowable failure rate, the prioritization that should be given to repairing certain defects, and whether this rate and prioritization should be adjusted for routes with significant flammable liquids traffic," the report said.

"Likewise, questions remain about the technical basis for regulatory requirements that establish maximum speed limits for this traffic, which were established based on speed limits imposed on other types of hazardous materials that are seldom transported in unit trains," it added.

Emergency response preparedness has improved as knowledge of crude and ethanol behavior in tank car derailments has grown but with geographical inconsistency, the report said.

"Emergency responder resources, information, and procedures have been enhanced as a result of the research, training, and educational efforts of industry and government safety agencies," it said. "Transportation providers have strengthened their connections with state and local officials, developed new communications tools to aid emergency responders, and increased offerings of emergency response training."

Opportunities to improve

While this progress is notable, there still are opportunities to improve emergency response capabilities and resources further, the report continued. "Industry and government authorities face a continuing challenge in ensuring that the best practices for preparing for and responding to incidents are widely known and that training opportunities are fully exploited, especially among rural communities served by volunteer fire departments," it said.

"In addition, there is little in the way of guidelines on the kinds of traffic information that carriers should be providing to state emergency response planning agencies, nor assurance that the recipient agencies are transmitting the information to the local responders who may need it," the report noted.

It said interstate oil and gas pipelines have invested heavily in new capacity to serve growing US oil and gas production, and have accommodated increasing volumes without creating major new safety concerns and within the basic framework of a long-standing regulatory and safety assurance process.

"Unintended pipeline releases have not increased with the higher traffic volumes, and most large year-to-year fluctuations in total release volumes have been the result of occasional major incidents with no discernible pattern," the report said. "Nevertheless, the addition of substantially more pipeline mileage and traffic volume can be expected to result in more total pipeline releases than would have occurred in the absence of these developments."

It suggested that corrosion, cracking, and other time-related wear factors, as well as outside causes such as damage from uncoordinated excavations, could lead to releases from some newer pipelines over time. "While the use of advanced pipeline construction methods and technologies may limit these releases, vigilance in pipeline maintenance, integrity management, and leak monitoring will be essential to suppressing an increase in total incidents and the likelihood of major events," it said.

"In cases when existing pipelines have undergone flow reversals or been repurposed from carrying other commodities to transport the new domestic oil and gas traffic, an inventory of these pipelines may be warranted to allow for closer monitoring of potential problems that may arise from changes in their stress and operating profiles," the report added.

Marine transportation's progress

It said marine transportation might offer a model for a more robust safety system because of extensive readiness planning and response training informed by lessons learned more than 30 years ago.

"Although the increase over the past decade in barge movements of crude oil has not attracted much public attention, the total volumes of oil transported by barge have exceeded those of rail," the report said. "A possible reason for the lack of public attention is the exemplary safety record of this mode, which has had no reports of significant ethanol releases from tank barges during the past 10 years and only rare reports of unintended releases of crude oil."

It said a series of catastrophic oil spills from tankers and barges nearly 30 years ago caused the federal government to revamp the safety assurance system in ways that have fundamentally altered the industry's safety profile.

"In addition to requiring the use of double-hulled tankers and barges for carrying crude and refined products, several new statutory and regulatory requirements have created a safety assurance system that has proven to be robust in enabling the maritime industry to safely accommodate unanticipated changes in demand for the movement of oil and other energy liquids," the report said.

"A decade after the start of the domestic energy revolution, it is difficult to know whether the impacts on the pipeline, rail, and barge industries have stabilized or temporarily reached a steady state. However, while the pace of change has slowed, it is an opportune time to review the functioning and performance of each mode's safety assurance system with a strategic focus on its ability to handle future safety challenges," it said.

The report recommended the following to the US Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA):

• Conduct a comprehensive review of the successes and failures in the past decade in responding to transportation safety challenges presented by the US energy revolution.

• Consult regularly with the oil, gas, and ethanol industries on developments impacting energy liquids and gas transportation.

• Evaluate the utility of existing incident and traffic-reporting data for the purpose of identifying and assessing public safety and environmental risks associated with transporting energy liquids and gases.

• Consult shippers and carriers on the kinds of data that are available and needed to improve incident and traffic-reporting systems so risk metrics can be developed.

• Consult with state emergency preparedness agencies on opportunities for presenting and sharing these data and metrics with local communities and their emergency responders.

• Coordinate with the other modal safety regulators in encouraging pipeline, rail, and barge operators to make greater use of quantitative risk analysis tools.

• Work with FRA in regularly and systematically assessing the risk-reduction impacts of new regulations to ensure the safety of flammable liquids shipments.

• Systematically model the full array of factors which can give rise to and affect the severity of flammable liquids train derailments and crashes.

• Make a concerted effort to ensure that federal emergency preparedness grants are being used to meet the planning, training, and resource needs of communities that are facing new and unfamiliar risks as a result of the changes that have occurred in the routing and volume of energy liquids and gas shipments.

In addition to working closely with PHMSA, the report recommended that FRA enable and create more incentives for more frequent and comprehensive inspections of rail routes that have regular energy liquids traffic.