New safety rules proposed for ethanol, oil trains

Source: By Staff and wire reports, Lincoln Journal Star • Posted: Thursday, July 24, 2014

New safety rules proposed to curb oil train fires

WASHINGTON — Thousands of older railroad tank cars that carry crude oil and ethanol would be phased out within two years under regulations proposed Wednesday in response to a series of fiery oil-train crashes over the past year.

The proposal also will require improved braking systems, stricter speed limits and testing of crude oil before being loaded, according to the Transportation Department.  The rules apply to shipments of ethanol distilled from corn, as well as to oil. The ethanol industry protested in response.

Subject to 60 days of public comment, the rules would require better descriptions of the cargo, a risk assessment for routes and lower speed limits. Trains made up of non-compliant tank cars would be limited to 40 miles an hour in all areas, or 50 mph if the tank cars meet the new standards, according to the proposal.

Freight railroads had voluntarily agreed to 40 mph through urban areas earlier this year and reportedly had agreed among themselves to standards for safer tank cars, which have ruptured in several accidents at speeds as low as 24 mph. Regulators said they’re considering lowering the speed limit to 30 mph for some trains that aren’t equipped with more advanced braking systems.

Railroad officials said a 30 mph speed limit would tie up traffic across the country because other freight wouldn’t be able to get past slower oil trains, which are often 100 cars or longer.

An undisclosed number of cars filled with ethanol and Bakken oil cross Nebraska every day. The state of Nebraska has refused to disclose BNSF traffic details to anyone but public safety agencies. Union Pacific says its oil-train traffic doesn’t rise to the level required to disclose it to the states.

Nebraska is the second largest producer of ethanol among the states, and most of it leaves Nebraska by train. Both UP and BNSF ship ethanol, which is less volatile than Bakken oil, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Typically, the shipper, not the railroad, owns or leases the tank cars.

“Today’s proposal represents our most significant progress yet in developing and enforcing new rules to ensure that all flammable liquids, including Bakken crude and ethanol, are transported safely,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in Washington.

The big railroads responded through the Association of American Railroads, which reserved judgment while it examines the details. President and CEO Edward R. Hamberger did note, “The fact that the proposed rule incorporates several of the voluntary operating practices we have already implemented demonstrates the railroad industry’s ongoing commitment to rail safety.”

The regulations are designed to update standards to account for an increase in the use of trains to carry flammable liquids, including crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken field, where production is soaring beyond the capacity of pipelines. U.S. carloads of oil jumped to 408,000 last year from 11,000 in 2009.

Accident investigators have complained for decades that the standard DOT-111 cars are too easily punctured or ruptured when derailed.

The phase-in period for replacing or retrofitting the DOT-111s is shorter than the Canadian government’s three-year phased plan. Regulators left open the question of what kind of tank car will replace the old ones, saying they will choose later from among several proposals.

The regulations apply only to trains of 20 or more cars, which would include most oil shipments.

Regulators have said they will seek to balance safety with the benefits of the U.S. energy boom.

Railroads have argued against new operating requirements that could create costly bottlenecks, lobbying instead for the production of sturdier tank cars and an aggressive replacement of the existing fleet. BNSF Railway has solicited bids to supply 5,000 new cars built to stricter specifications.

Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, said the rules paint with too broad a brush and fail to distinguish between what he called ethanol’s admirable safety record and the dangers from Bakken oil.

“Ethanol is a low volatility, consistent commercial product with a 99.997 percent rail safety record,” Dinneen said in a news release. “Unlike oil from fracking, ethanol is not a highly volatile feedstock of unknown and differing quality and characteristics being shipped to a refinery for commercial use. Before this proposed rule is finalized, the RFA looks forward to engaging the Department of Transportation in a constructive dialogue about these differences, and the need to have a practical and effective phase-in of these new standards.”