Railroads make their own moves to improve safety of crude oil trains

McClatchy InteractiveFebruary 20, 2014 

Empty railroad tank cars snake their way into a storage yard in Newark, Del. The cars will return to North Dakota's Bakken region to be loaded with crude oil for another trip to the refinery at Delaware City, Del. With a shortage of new pipeline capacity, oil producers have been using rail as an alternative, and in some cases it's the preferred mode. July 28, 2013. Curtis Tate/MCT


As they await new federal guidelines on the shipment of crude oil, railroads are taking their own steps to improve the safety of the shipments.

On Thursday, BNSF, the nation's largest hauler of crude oil in trains, said it would purchase 5,000 new, better protected tank cars exclusively for such shipments.

It's an unusual move. Railroads generally don't own tank cars; rather, shippers lease them from freight car manufacturers or financial institutions.

Roxanne Butler, a BNSF spokeswoman, said the voluntary move would help "provide tank car builders a head start on tank car design and production, even as the Department of Transportation, railroads and shippers continue to engage in the formal rulemaking process."

BNSF, based in Fort Worth, Texas, and owned by billionaire investor Warren Buffett, isn't the only rail company to act to protect a growing business.

Earlier this month, Canada's two largest railroads, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, said they would charge 5 percent more to ship oil in older, less protected tank cars, known as DOT-111As. Both carriers have extensive operations in the U.S.

The National Transportation Safety Board has been warning about the cars' vulnerability in derailments for many years.

In a speech to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce this week, Canadian Pacific CEO Hunter Harrison said that the older cars should be removed from crude oil service immediately.

"Don't wait for a study," he said. "We know the facts."

The cars have failed catastrophically in several derailments of crude oil trains since last summer. In July, one such train rolled down a hill and came off the tracks in the center of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, igniting a deadly and destructive fire that killed 47 people.

More recent derailments in Alabama, North Dakota and Pennsylvania caused major spills or fires, but no injuries or fatalities.

Worried state and local officials have been counting on the federal government to protect their communities from disaster, but it could be another year before new regulations on tank cars become final.

Paul Reistrup, a retired railroad executive who was Amtrak's president in the 1970s, said the industry is right to take a proactive approach to the problem.

"You have to be Johnny-on-the-spot," he said. "The safety of the cars is very important."

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