By John Kemp
LONDON Feb 25 U.S. railroad operators have
agreed new safety procedures to reduce the number of fiery
derailments involving crude-carrying trains and cut the risk of
a catastrophic explosion in a densely populated urban centre.
The agreement between the Association of American Railroads
(AAR) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), announced
on Friday, builds on safety enhancements many rail operators had
already implemented individually.
Most of the major railroads in the United States and Canada
had already agreed to designate trains carrying 20 or more tank
cars of crude or ethanol as "key trains" following a series of
The designation, which is also used for trains carrying
explosive, toxic and nuclear materials, gives them priority over
all other traffic on the network, limits them to a maximum speed
of 50 miles per hour, and requires comprehensive risk assessment
and route-planning procedures.
From the end of March, however, the railroads will step up
track inspections along routes which are used by trains carrying
20 or more carloads of oil.
Cracked or broken rails are one of the most common causes of
derailments. Crude shippers and the oil industry have complained
that railroads have not done enough to keep their trains on the
rails, and blamed the train companies for the recent spate of
Enhanced inspections - including high-tech measurements of
track geometry, such as curvature and alignment - will go beyond
current standards set by the Federal Railroad Administration
(FRA) and are meant to demonstrate rail operators are doing all
they can to avoid accidents.
Railroads have also agreed to use better braking systems on
all 20-car crude-carrying trains that will enable brakes to be
applied from both ends of the train to stop it faster in the
event of an emergency.
Speed has been identified as a major contributor in
crude-by-rail (CBR) accidents. The faster the train or trains
are moving when an incident occurs, the more likely tank cars
are to rupture and lose some or all of their contents,
heightening the fire risk.
From July 1, any 20-car crude-carrying train that includes
at least one tank car of the old Class 111 design will be
subjected to an even lower speed limit of 40 miles per hour when
travelling through any one of 46 high-threat-urban areas (HTUAs)
designated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The full list of high-threat-urban areas is published in
Title 49 Part 1580 of the Code of Federal Regulations, but it
includes the metropolitan areas of New York, Detroit, Chicago,
Washington DC, Houston and New Orleans, all of which are major
destinations or transit points for the crude-by-rail business.
Derailments in one of these areas pose the greatest risk to
life and property, as well as the biggest potential liability
for the railroads, so it makes sense to reduce train speeds, and
kinetic energy on impact, even further in them.
From the beginning of July, all railroads have promised to
start using the Rail Corridor Risk Management System (RCRMS) for
20-car trains to determine the safest route.
RCRMS was developed in the wake of September 11, 2001, to
keep trains carrying the most hazardous materials away from
urban centres as much as possible.
It takes account of 27 risk factors (including population
density along the route, trip length, local emergency response
capability, track quality and signal systems) to identify the
So far RCRMS has been used for the most dangerous class of
hazmat (inhalation poisons, radiological materials and
explosives) but it will now be extended to crude trains.
OIL TANK CARS
The explanation for so many fiery train derailments
involving unit trains carrying crude oil is becoming much
There are two related problems: the old tank cars being used
to carry most crude are not strong enough to resist the forces
involved in a crash, and the crude is more volatile and
flammable than previously thought.
For two decades, the U.S. National Transportation Safety
Board (NTSB) has been warning that the Class 111 tank car design
is not strong enough to resist impact forces.
More than two-thirds of Class 111 tank cars involved in
recent accidents have been punctured or suffering damage to
their valves, leading to containment failure.
Pressurised tank cars, built to Class 105 and 112 designs
and used to carry hazardous liquids like chlorine, are far less
likely to rupture on impact.
The design limitations of the Class 111 tank cars were not
an issue when they were used mostly to carry harmless products
like milk. And the potential risks were hidden because so little
crude actually travelled by rail before 2009.
But once Class 111 tank cars entered routine crude-by-rail
service, especially in unit trains, the risks rose substantially
and became far more apparent.
The risks of unsafe tank car designs have been worsened by
the unusually high volatility of the crude being transported
from North Dakota and some of the other shale plays.
North Dakota's Bakken crude has a Reid Vapour Pressure (RVP)
of 8.6 pounds per square inch (psi), roughly double the
volatility of other crudes processed by U.S. refineries,
according to research by the Wall Street Journal ("Bakken shale
oil carries high combustion risk" Feb 23).
Other crudes typically have an RVP of 3-6 psi. But some
Bakken crude has hit RVP readings of 10 or even 12 psi,
according to the newspaper.
That makes Bakken oil almost as volatile as gasoline.
Gasoline volatility is normally kept well below 14.7 psi. The
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limits the RVP of
reformulated gasoline supplies in areas with poor air quality in
summer to 9.0 or even 7.8 psi.
RVP matters because it is a measure of the tendency of
crude, gasoline or other flammable liquids to evaporate and form
a flammable or explosive cloud around the train.
If the tank car cannot contain the crude safely in an
accident, there is a strong likelihood oil and vapours will
start to escape forming a dangerous vapour cloud and
significantly heightening the risk of a fire or explosion.
Railroad operators want Class 111 tank cars taken out of a
service on an accelerated timetable because of the risks.
Canadian National Railway is already charging
shippers more to transport crude oil in older Class 111 tank
cars to reflect the increased risk and to encourage them to use
more modern, and safer, designs.
"CN has structured its rates to create an economic incentive
for customers to acquire, over time, more robust tank cars that
meet the higher safety standard of the more recent CPC 1232
design," according to a company spokesman.
"What we do to help ourself is we price crude differently
for different car types ... The CPC-1232 is our favorite car
when it comes to pricing or attracting business," the company
said in a presentation on Feb 10.
Canadian Pacific has now followed suit and imposed a
$325 "general service tank car safety surcharge" on each car of
crude shipped in any container other than the CPC 1232 model.
Burlington Northern-Santa Fe, the railroad owned by Warren
Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, has confirmed plans to order 5,000
tank cars built to updated designs for use in crude service.
But as long as substantial numbers of Class 111 tank cars
remain in service, carrying high volatility oil, they remain a
severe risk to communities along the route, as well as to train
crews and the railroad companies themselves, which are liable in
the event of accidents.
The new agreement between the AAR and the Department of
Transportation recognises the scale of the threat by insisting
that having just one Class 111 tank car on a 20-car
crude-carrying train will be enough to invoke the special
40-mile per hour speed limit in high-threat-urban areas from