Crude by rail requires stronger tank cars, agencies say

Angela Greiling Keane (c) 2014, Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON — Crude oil hauled by rail needs to be shipped in stronger tank cars and on safer routes, transportation investigators in the United States and Canada said Thursday following a series of accidents in North America.

The National Transportation Safety Board and Canadian Transportation Safety Board issued the recommendations as part of a probe into the July derailment of rail cars filled with oil in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The accident ignited an inferno that killed 47 people spending a Saturday night in the town’s center.

“The large-scale shipment of crude oil by rail simply didn’t exist 10 years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up with this new reality,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said in a statement citing concerns about “the major loss of life” in accidents involving oil transported by rail.

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The Canadian agency recommended tougher standards for the type of tank car involved in the Lac-Megantic disaster, improve route planning and require detailed emergency-response plans in communities where oil shipments travel. The NTSB made recommendations to make the tank cars safer in 2009.

Neither agency has the power to issue or enforce standards, which are overseen by agencies such as the U.S. Transportation Department and Transport Canada.

“In the course of our Lac-Mégantic investigation, we found three critical weaknesses in the North American rail system which must be urgently addressed,” TSB Chairwoman Wendy Tadros said in a statement.

The boards acted after a BNSF Railway Co. train carrying Bakken formation crude crashed in North Dakota last month, forcing the evacuation of a nearby town, and a CSX Corp. train hauling crude derailed Jan. 20 near the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.

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Record volumes of oil are being hauled by rail as soaring production from Canada, North Dakota’s Bakken shale formation and Texas exceeds pipeline capacity. U.S. oil output at the highest level since 1988 has led to a 400 percent increase in oil shipments by rail since 2005, the NTSB said, citing Association of American Railroads data.

Through Jan. 18, the volume of U.S. rail shipments of petroleum and associated products increased 13 percent this year as overall traffic is up less than 1 percent, according to AAR data released Thursday.

The Canadian board recommended that tank cars designated as DOT-111 that haul crude should be stronger and better able to withstand a crash or blast.

“If crude oil is to be carried, it shouldn’t be carried in class-111 tank cars,” Tadros said Thursday at an Ottawa news conference. The timing of a phase out should be left to regulators, she said, saying she would like to see it “sooner rather than later.”

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The NTSB has investigated rail crashes since 1992 when this type of tank car ruptured. Hersman has said they have “inadequate design.” The NTSB has recommended phasing out the cars if they can’t be retrofitted to be made safer.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx last week met with officials from the railroad and oil industries, who agreed to spend 30 days examining steps to improve safety of trains hauling crude. Railcar suppliers complained about being left out of the meeting.

“The increased production of crude oil in the Bakken region presents tremendous economic and energy opportunities for this country, yet it also presents new and unique challenges,” Foxx wrote Wednesday to the heads of three industry groups at the meeting. “It is up to all of us to ensure that the crude oil, whether from North Dakota or elsewhere, is transported safely and securely with no adverse impact to Americans or their property.”

Canadian Transport Minister Lisa Raitt promised to respond to the investigators’ recommendations.

“We thank the Transportation Safety Board for their recommendations and their ongoing investigation into the tragic Lac-Mégantic incident,” Raitt said in an emailed statement. “I have instructed my officials to review the recommendations on an urgent basis.”

U.S. mayors separately Thursday pressed President Barack Obama’s administration for more oversight of the railroad industry, citing the risks of shipping oil and natural gas through metropolitan areas.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose city is one of the nation’s main railroad hubs, said the U.S. should impose a fee on energy producers and their industrial customers to improve railways, a source of money that could also help pay for the cost of responding to accidents.

Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, spoke during a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington.

“We love rail traffic, and we want more and more of it, but there’s a lot going on,” said Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who said his city’s rail yard is near an expressway. “This is not like a fire in a trashcan. This is serious stuff.”

Foxx, who was at the meeting, said the agency is also looking into railways. “There is no magic bullet here,” said Foxx, a former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. “We don’t think this is a situation where any one type of action is going to solve the problem.”

— With assistance from Paul Badertscher in Ottawa, Frederic Tomesco in Montreal and William Selway in Washington.