With production on the rise in North America, oil companies are increasingly challenged with finding ways to transport their product. Pipeline networks do not yet have the capacity or flexibility to handle the job, so oil companies have had to rely on railroads to fill the gap. In 2013, rail shipments of crude oil in the United States skyrocketed, with 400,000 carloads transported compared to 4,729 in 2006, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR).
But this additional volume has also increased the risk of accidents. Last July, a freight train derailment caused a massive explosion that leveled the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec and resulted in 47 deaths. This February, several tankers capsized in Pennsylvania, causing crude oil to leak from three of the cars. In the last six months, trains carrying crude oil have also derailed in Alabama and North Dakota.
According to experts, lagging regulation of rail transport of hazardous materials is to blame for many accidents. Outdated tank cars risk splitting if they are overturned, creating a serious potential risk when coupled with the high volatility of the oil being transported.
In the December 2013 report “Moving Crude Oil by Rail,” the AAR noted that the rail industry has been urging federal regulators “to toughen existing standards for new tank cars” and recommended that the estimated 92,000 existing tank cars used to transport flammable liquids, including crude oil, be retrofitted with advanced safety-enhancing technologies, or phased out if they cannot be upgraded.
While there are obvious issues with rail transportation of oil, the AAR pointed out that railroads have an excellent safety record with crude—even surpassing pipelines in recent years. Based on U.S. Department of Transportation data, the “spill rate” of crude oil for railroads from 2002 to 2012 was estimated at 2.2 gallons per million ton-miles, compared with 6.3 for pipelines. But as both the industry and federal regulators acknowledge, there is much room for improvement.
Some rail companies have already taken steps to improve safety. BNSF Railway announced plans in late February to purchase 5,000 accident-resistant tank cars as a precautionary measure. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Warren Buffett-owned company said the cars have safety features that include half-inch-thick steel shields on the sides to prevent splitting if they are overturned. The new cars are also equipped with pressure-relief valves to endure ethanol-based fire, and are constructed of thicker steel than is currently used.
In addition, the DOT and railroad industry organizations have developed both voluntary and mandatory safety and risk management mandates.
On Feb. 21, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and the AAR announced a new safety initiative, introducing voluntary operating practices for moving crude oil by rail. These include rerouting trains around high-risk areas, lowering speed limits and inspecting tracks more frequently.
“Safety is a shared responsibility among all energy-supply-chain stakeholders,” said AAR President and CEO Edward R. Hamberger. “We will continue to work with our safety partners—including regulators, our employees, our customers and the communities through which we operate—to find even more ways to reinforce public confidence in the rail industry’s ability to safely meet the increased demand to move crude oil.”
The DOT also issued an emergency order requiring that rail shippers test the makeup of volatile crude oil from Bakkan Shale in North Dakota and Montana to ensure proper classification before transporting it. Shippers are required to use nine classes as a guide for hazardous materials, the DOT said. This process ensures that the material is placed in the proper container and that the risk is accurately communicated to emergency responders.
“Today, we are raising the bar for shipping crude oil on behalf of the families and communities along rail lines nationwide. If you intend to move crude oil by rail, then you must test and classify the material appropriately,” Foxx said in a statement. “And when you do ship it, you must follow the requirements for the two strongest safety packing groups. From emergency orders to voluntary agreements, we are using every tool at our disposal to ensure the safe transportation of crude.”
Voluntary steps announced by the DOT and AAR include:
Use rail traffic routing technology. By July 1, railroads are to begin using the Rail Corridor Risk Management System (RCRMS), an analytical tool developed with the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration. This will help determine the safest and most secure routes for trains with 20 or more cars of crude oil.
Railroads currently use RCRMS when routing security-sensitive materials. The program assesses the safety and security of rail routes, taking into account 27 risk factors, including volume of commodity, trip length, population density along the route, local emergency response capability, track quality and signal systems.
Conduct more track inspections. Effective March 25, railroads are to perform at least one internal rail inspection annually in addition to those required by Federal Railroad Administration regulations on main line routes used by trains moving 20 or more carloads of crude oil.
Enhance braking systems. By April 1, railroads are to equip all trains hauling 20 or more carloads of crude oil with either distributed power or two-way telemetry end-of-train devices. This will allow train crews to apply emergency brakes from both ends of the train to stop it faster.
Reduce speeds. By July 1, if a train with 20 or more tank cars carrying crude oil includes at least one older model car, it must run no faster than 40 miles-per-hour in the 46 federally designated high-threat urban areas.
Increase trackside safety technology. By July 1, railroads will begin installing additional wayside wheel bearing detectors every 40 miles along tracks with trains carrying 20 or more crude oil cars. This allows for detection of wheel damage before accidents occur. Since the system was introduced in 2004, the accident rate from broken wheels has dropped more than 20%, according to the AAR.
Add emergency response training. Railroads have committed to provide $5 million to develop specialized crude by rail training and a tuition assistance program for about 1,500 local first responders. Part of the curriculum will be designed for local emergency responders in the field and comprehensive training will also be conducted at the Transportation Technology Center facility in Pueblo, Colo.
Develop emergency response capability plans. By July 1, railroads will create an inventory of emergency resources for responding to the release of large amounts of crude oil along rail routes. This inventory will include locations for staging emergency response equipment and contacts for notifying communities. When the inventory is completed, railroads will provide the DOT and emergency responders with plan details.