HOUSTON, June 24 U.S. regulators this autumn may impose new standards for rail tank cars that carry crude oil that are tougher than the latest design adopted by railroads in 2011, a top industry safety executive said on Tuesday.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has been under pressure to overhaul safety rules as it tries to respond to a recent series of fiery crude train crashes in North America and a surge in rail traffic carrying crude from shale fields to refineries.
A year ago, for instance, a runaway tanker train carrying crude smashed into the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people.
James Rader, senior vice president at Watco Industries LLC and the head of the Association of American Railroads' (AAR) tank car committee, said the Department of Transportation's measures could include thicker steel walls, thermal jackets to prevent fires and stronger, puncture-resistant, ends, or "heads".
"I pretty much could predict exactly what's going to happen. It's going to be a jacketed, thermally protected car, with a full head," said Rader, a former railroad regulator.
The thermal protection would be a ceramic material and full heads would be taller than the half-heads used now, he said.
Also, among the tank-car designs being looked at are some with 9/16-inch steel walls. Cars with 7/16-inch walls are widely used now.
Railroads and petroleum producers, worried about shipping costs, are close to coming up with a single design that they will recommend to the transportation department, Rader said.
That recommendation will enhance the latest design that railroads adopted for new cars in October 2011 to update a decades-old design known as the DOT-111, which is still the workhorse of the industry.
"Based on new evidence, we don't think we went far enough," Rader said of the industry's 2011 design.
Rader, who spoke at an Infocast tank car conference, said if the DOT phases out old cars too fast it might add to backlogs at plants building new cars and retrofitting old ones.
"I would suspect maybe a phase-in period for the legacy cars," he said.
The head of Canada's National Transportation Safety Board said on Tuesday that the United States should follow the example of Canada and opt for a relatively quick phase-out of older tank cars.
Even though the post-October 2011 cars come with reinforced steel and valves, some of them were involved in the April crash of a crude train in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Watco estimates there are some 23,450 cars in service that comply with the post-October 2011 standards, and 55,546 should be ready by the end of next year as carriers retire older cars. (Reporting by Terry Wade; Editing by Kristen Hays; and Peter Galloway)