The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday added railroad tank car upgrades to its list of “Most Wanted” safety improvements, reflecting a heightened awareness about problems in transporting crude oil and ethanol by rail.
It was the first time tank cars have appeared on the board’s annual list of safety priorities since it issued the first one in 1990. The board also renewed its call for railroads to install positive train control, a collision-avoidance system, by the end of the year.
The NTSB makes recommendations but has no power to enforce them. The U.S. Department of Transportation regulates the shipment of hazardous materials by rail and is finishing new standards for tank cars that reflect the NTSB’s recommendations.
The department, however, will miss a Jan. 15 deadline set by Congress last month for the new tank car standards. In a report on the department’s significant rules in the making, the tank car measure isn’t scheduled for publication until May 12.
The January deadline was attached to the $1.1 trillion spending bill Congress approved last month by Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, the top lawmakers on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development.
In an email Tuesday to McClatchy, Murray said she was “extremely disappointed” that the department will miss the safety rules deadline.
“In communities across Washington state and our entire country, we’ve seen oil train traffic increase exponentially,” she said. “Plain and simple: These trains, which often carry oil in badly outdated tank cars, pose serious safety risks to our communities, and there is no excuse . . . to delay in issuing new safety standards.”
Though it may not have appeared on prior “Most Wanted” lists, the NTSB has recommended tank car improvements for many years. In 1991, it warned that the most common type of tank car, the DOT-111, lacked adequate protections in derailments involving hazardous materials.
Starting in 2006, a series of fiery ethanol train derailments showed the car’s vulnerability to damage, including punctures and ruptures, that released flammable materials.
Then in 2013, an oil train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killed 47 people and destroyed much of the town. Accident investigators again cited the tank car’s thin shells, lack of shielding and thermal insulation, as well as devices that protect valves from opening unintentionally.
Unlike the collision-avoidance system, however, the NTSB has not taken a position on an appropriate deadline for replacing or upgrading the DOT-111 fleet. The Transportation Department proposed a two-year phaseout of the oldest cars for the most hazardous materials, beginning in October.
The DOT-111A tank car
About 92,000 DOT-111s are in use; 78,000 lack extra safety features. Most tank cars are leased by oil companies or other firms moving products by rail.
Industry groups would like more time to make the changes. They’ve said the two-year deadline could create rail car shortages and more oil transported by trucks.
In a presentation Tuesday to a group of transportation officials and researchers in Washington, the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry trade group, proposed five years for phasing out or refitting the oldest cars and another five for improving others. Prentiss Searles, marketing issues manager for the group, said the industry’s plan would achieve a 75 percent risk reduction within five years.
Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, a rail industry trade group, said the association “has been a strong advocate for increased tank car design standards and has been calling for an aggressive retrofit or phaseout program.”
After a series of explosions in the 1970s of pressurized tank cars carrying flammable gases such as propane, regulators required that the cars be improved within two years with many of the same features under discussion now. Industry groups protested that they couldn’t meet the deadline, but ultimately they did.
One rail car manufacturer supports the tighter time line. Greg Saxton, senior vice president and chief engineer for Greenbrier Cos., said in an interview that the demand is sufficient enough to make the changes quickly.
“If you set a 10-year deadline, it will take 10 years,” he said. “We think that it can be done faster.”
The Oregon-based company is currently building tank cars that exceed the standards proposed by industry groups. For example, they have thicker shells than those proposed by the rail and oil industries – 9/16 of an inch vs. half an inch. Most current cars have 7/16-inch shells.
For Saxton, it’s about providing an extra margin of safety.
“We don’t want to see more Lac-Megantics,” he said.
Positive train control long has been a more prominent item on NTSB’s safety agenda. The board first recommended the industry adopt technology to prevent collisions in 1969. In 2008, after 25 people died in a head-on collision between a commuter train and a freight train in Southern California, Congress gave the industry seven years to install it.
Railroads are not likely to meet the original Dec. 31 deadline, though, and the Association of American Railroads supports an extension. A bipartisan bill in Congress sponsored by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, would give railroads until 2020.
Greenberg, the spokesman for the rail industry trade group, said that “much work remains to be done” on the system because of its complexity and the enormity of installing it. He noted that the system’s technology and engineering components had to be developed from scratch.