Oil Tank Cars

BNSF Railway recently reported fewer trains carrying Bakken crude oil are going through Nebraska, although the number going through Lincoln has remained steady.

WASHINGTON — Rail tank cars that are used to transport most crude oil and many other flammable liquids, including ethanol, will have to be built to stronger standards to reduce the risk of catastrophic train crash and fire under a series of new rules unveiled Friday by U.S. and Canadian transportation officials.

The rules will be important to ethanol shippers in Nebraska, both big Western railroads, BNSF Railway and Union Pacific, as well as communities through which oil and ethanol trains pass. As many as 30 oil trains with at least a million gallons of oil pass through Nebraska weekly, half a dozen of them passing through Lincoln. Nebraska originated 57,000 carloads of ethanol, second only to Iowa, as recently as 2012.

The regulations, which go into effect Oct. 1, respond to a series of fiery train crashes in the U.S. and Canada, including four so far this year.

Under the rules, new tank cars carrying the most volatile liquids must have an outer shell, a thermal lining, improved top and bottom fittings and thicker 9/16-inch steel walls to keep them from rupturing.

Thousands of older tank cars that are more prone to rupture will have to be phased out within three years. Some newer tank cars built to a voluntary standard agreed to by the industry in 2011 must be phased out within five years.

Trains of at least 70 cars, including any containing the most volatile class of liquids, also must have electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes that automatically stop all the cars in a train at the same time, instead of sequentially. The braking requirement goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2021. But it will be extended to all flammable-liquid trains after 2023. Oil trains not in compliance would face a 30 mph speed limit.

The industry has fought the changes. The oil industry had lobbied for tank car walls to be a half-inch thick, instead of 9/16. The thicker the shell, the less oil a tank car can hold. With about a half-million carloads of crude hauled by rail in the U.S. and Canada last year, the cost difference could add up.

The Association of American Railroads said Friday it welcomed the tank car rule, but also said it was disappointed the rule requires either the use of electronically controlled pneumatic brakes or imposes a 30 mph speed limit.

“First and foremost, the DOT has no substantial evidence to support a safety justification for mandating ECP brakes, which will not prevent accidents,” said Edward R. Hamberger, AAR's CEO. “The DOT couldn’t make a safety case for ECP but forged ahead anyhow. This is an imprudent decision made without supporting data or analysis.

“DOT has handed down an unprecedented railroad operating requirement that is 100 percent dependent on the actions of rail customers or tank car owners,” Hamberger said. Rail cars typically are owned by shippers, not the railroads. “This decision not only threatens the operational management of the U.S. rail system, but trains moving 30 mph will compromise network capacity by at least 30 percent. The far-reaching effects of this decision will be felt by freight and passenger customers alike. Slow-moving trains will back up the entire rail system.”

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Canada's Minister of Transport, Lisa Raitt, said at a news conference that it was necessary to harmonize regulations because oil trains go back and forth across the border between the two nations.

The Obama administration has been under intense pressure from members of Congress as well as from state and local officials to ensure the safety of oil trains that traverse the country after leaving the Bakken region of North Dakota.

The number of accidents is going up because the oil boom in the U.S. and Canada has dramatically increased the amount of oil shipped by rail. Most of the accidents in the U.S., as well as the catastrophic Lac-Megantic derailment in Quebec, which killed 47 people, involved trains hauling Bakken crude. Government tests show Bakken crude is often more volatile than most crude oil.

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