This past week, United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (pdf) and an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (pdf) that seeks to improve the safe transportation of large quantities of flammable materials by rail. The announcement comes in the wake of several accidents involving derailed train cars that put the general public and the environment at risk – and resulted in fatalities. Over the past year, the Department of Transport has made over a dozen amendments to improve the safety of the rail system to ensure the safe transport of crude oil and ethanol in the United States.
The number of carloads of crude oil being transported by Class I railroads has increased from 10,800 in 2009 to over 400,000 carloads in 2013. Transport of ethanol has also increased: from 292,000 rail carloads to 409,000 between 2009 and 2011. The huge spike in production is evidence of the new US position as a global leader in crude oil production. The increase in the amount of hazardous material being transported translates into an increased risk of incidents. In the last two years, there have been ten train accidents in which crude oil was involved. By contrast, there were zero train accidents involving crude oil in 2010. To combat this risk, the proposed USDOT rules address several important concerns:
- Older tank cars (DOT Specification 111 or CTC 111) will be phased out or retrofitted within two years
- Improved braking systems
- Flammability testing before transportation
The ruling also proposes a definition of high-hazard flammable trains (HHFT) as a train carrying 20 or more tank carloads of flammable liquids and would require carriers to perform a routing analysis for HHFT that would consider 27 safety and security factors and select a route based on findings of the route analysis.
If passed in totality, these regulations come as much needed reform that could greatly improve the safety of the rail system that has been lagging behind. Canadian regulators have already taken actions to phase out old tank cars; in the US it has been left up to the railroad companies to voluntarily cease using outdated and dangerous rail cars until now. As for flammability testing, Bakken crude oil in particular is found to be more volatile than other types of crude oil, which makes transportation even more hazardous.
Production of crude oil in the United States has increased, but the infrastructure to support this growing industry still lags behind. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would run from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, could possibly alleviate stress from the rail system, but pipelines have their own level of risk.
Federal Railroad Administration and the Hazardous Materials Safety Administration will be open for a 60-day comment period on these proposed rules, after which they will make a final decision. If implemented, the new requirements will be a step in the right direction, but it is hard to say if these regulations go far enough or if they will be implemented fast enough. There is no sign of a decline in crude oil production for the foreseeable future. It is therefore necessary that safety regulations and infrastructure grow along with industry to ensure personal and environmental safety.