Oil train accidents force regulators to look at tank car safety

Three rail disasters in the past six months raise concerns about whether older oil tankers need to be made stronger.

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Dec. 30, 2013, Casselton, N.D: An oil train crashed into a grain car, causing explosions and a fire and forcing the partial evacuation of the town. No one was hurt. 2July 6, Lac-Mé­gan­tic, Que­bec: An un­at­tend­ed oil train rolled away, crash­ed and ex­ploded, kill­ing 47 peo­ple. 3 Nov. 8, Aliceville, Ala.: A de­rail­ment trig­gered ex­plo­sions in three of 90 tank cars. No one was in­jured.

 

Oil train explosions like the one last week near Casselton, N.D., have revived long-standing worries that older railroad tank cars need to be strengthened to better withstand accidents.

Three disasters in the past six months in the United States and Canada have demonstrated the risks of carrying crude oil by rail. Oil tankers now carry more than 10 percent of U.S. oil, up 40-fold in five years, according to the Association of American Railroads.

“There is an increased interest … to look at tank cars and whether we can do more to remove the risk,” said Thomas Simpson, president of the Railway Supply Institute, a trade group for tank car builders and owners.

North Dakota, lacking sufficient pipelines, sends more than two-thirds of the crude from its Bakken oil region down the tracks, typically on 100-car-long trains. Many travel on BNSF Railway Co. and Canadian Pacific tracks through Minnesota, including the Twin Cities. Minnesota’s 20 ethanol plants also rely heavily on tank cars because current pipelines are unsuitable for that fuel.

Yet most of the nation’s 94,000 rail tankers carrying oil, ethanol and other flammable liquids don’t meet puncture-resistance and other standards that apply to new tank cars. Rail car and shipping industry officials say it could take a decade and cost billions to retrofit up to 65,000 older tankers that carry flammable liquids.

Federal regulators are now considering whether to require it.

“It is a challenge, but it is doable,” said Larry Mann, a Washington, D.C.-based rail safety attorney.

In 2011, railroads and shippers voluntarily established tougher standards for new tank cars, and more than 14,000 of them are on the rails today. That’s about 15 percent of the tankers carrying oil, ethanol and other flammable liquids. Most of the remainder are older models with a record of tank failures in accidents since 1991, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Railroad groups said in November that they support upgrading the old tanker fleet, but the cost would fall on shippers because they own or lease the tank cars. Oil and ethanol shippers haven’t warmed to that idea, and they say railroads need to do more to prevent derailments.

“The ethanol industry takes safety very seriously, but we don’t re-engineer vehicles already on the road with new, expensive suspension systems to combat any potential damage from hitting a pothole on the interstate. No, we fix the pothole. The same should be true with rail transportation,” Bob Dinneen, CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, an ethanol trade group, said via e-mail.

The American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry trade group, told regulators in December that the retrofits not only would be costly and take years but that they would add weight to trains. It urged regulators to study the costs and benefits before imposing a regulation, and to order railroads to improve tracks and take other steps to reduce derailments.

BNSF, whose train crashed Dec. 30 in North Dakota, said in a statement that its safety practices have achieved record-low injuries and accidents, and it will take further measures based on the results of the accident investigation. Canadian Pacific, a crude oil hauler whose U.S. headquarters is in Minneapolis, said that it is always working with federal regulators and others to promote safety. Both railroads are part of the industry group that supports tanker retrofits.

Even if federal regulators were to order tank car upgrades or other measures, the new rules likely wouldn’t take effect for at least a year. “It is just a complicated issue that has taken time,” said Gordon Delcambre Jr., a spokesman for the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is considering new regulations.

Train car repair shops probably would need 10 years to retrofit every tank car. “There’s a finite number of facilities that can do the work,” said Simpson of the Railway Supply Institute, which supports improving older tank cars but questions whether all of the proposed modifications are feasible.

Some tank cars might be retired or shifted to carry nonflammable products. So the potential cost of upgrading the nation’s tanker fleet could range from $1.7 billion to more than $5 billion.

Calling for action

After the recent oil train wrecks, more people are demanding action in the United States and Canada.

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  • Dec. 31: Casselton residents flee after oil train explosion

    Tuesday December 31, 2013

    A crew from Little Rock, Ark., endured subzero temperatures overnight to check for any health hazards. "Right now, we're in limbo," a deputy sheriff told the Star Tribune.

  • This photo provided by Cass County Commissioner Ken Pawluk shows a train derailment and fire west of Casselton, N.D., Monday, Dec. 30, 2013.

  • A tanker train carrying crude oil burns after derailing outside Aliceville, Ala., early Friday, Nov. 8, 2013.

  • July 9, 2013: Workers comb through debris after a train derailed three days earlier causing explosions of railway cars carrying crude oil in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

  • Rail cars were backed up in the yard in the aftermath of a derailment on Dec. 31 in Mandan, N.D.

  • The cost to upgrade

    65,341

    Potential number of tank cars needing safety-related retrofits

    $1.7 to $5 billion

    The potential cost

    14,160

    Tank cars built under the new standard

    Uncertainties: The number and extent of retrofits are unknown. Many tank cars might be retired or shifted to other uses, avoiding the need to upgrade.

    Source: Railway Supply Institute; cost estimate based on Star Tribune analysis.

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