Rail industry pushes for change, feds won't budge

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

A train rumbles through Voorheesville on Tuesday morning. All three tank cars here are General Electric Rail Services tankers. The entire length of the train was made up of tank cars from different companies such as CIT Equipment Finance Corporation, and Union Tank Car Company.

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

A quaint Victorian house peeks out between tank cars traveling through Voorheesville on Tuesday. Many of the cars were carrying flammable alcohol — the HAZMAT (for hazardous materials) placard 1987 means alcohol, and the 3 beneath it refers to the class of cargo; class 3 is flammable liquids.

ALBANY COUNTY — In the wake of a North Dakota oil boom that ships crude oil on trains, a lack of federal action two years ago prompted rail companies to implement their own standards for construction, safety, and inspection — higher and stricter than those of the federal government.

The trend continued last week when the Association of American Railroads announced a list of commitments voluntarily agreed upon among AAR, the Department of Transportation, and the seven largest freight railroads in the country.

The AAR and DOT worked together to create these commitments, but there is no federal enforcement of them.

“These are voluntary operation practices,” said Patti Reilly, spokeswoman for AAR, a trade association, “we were not told to do them.”

Tuesday’s derailment in Ulster, N.Y. has heightened local concerns, which have primarily centered around the Port of Albany, from where crude oil is shipped on the Hudson River.

Canadian Pacific trains bring Bakken crude from North Dakota through Albany County to the Port of Albany. CSX transports crude oil through Albany County and into the Port of Albany, as well.

New York State Congressman Paul Tonko, a Democrat representing the 20th District of New York, told The Enterprise yesterday that he is pushing for the Department of Transportation to increase federal regulations on crude oil transportation. His advice for speeding up the currently sluggish approval process for any new regulations is, “Determine which regulations need [to be] changed and how to structure them. Then you have to move expeditiously.”

The Association of American Railroads works with freight-train companies and the federal government to improve the safety and efficiency of rail networks across the country.

The latest commitments center around Key Crude Oil Trains, meaning trains transporting 20 or more tank cars loaded with petroleum crude oil. One commitment sets a speed limit of 50 miles per hour for Key Crude Oil Trains, and 40 miles per hour for a Key train with at least one older DOT-111 tank car going through any of the 46 high-threat urban areas established by the Department of Homeland Security.

“That’s a maximum speed,” Reilly said, “Lots of railroads go slower than that.”

Commitments also include the agreement to at least one additional rail inspection per year, performed by each individual railroad on its own tracks.

Additional braking systems on trains and high-tech wheel-bearing defect detectors on every 40 miles of track are also a part of the new commitments.

“The railroads don’t need regulations to be put in place. They want safe railroads,” said Reilly. “There’s no taking a back seat to safety.”

Feds don’t budge

 In March 2011, the trade association AAR petitioned the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to assume new standards aimed at improving the design and construction of DOT-111 tank cars to increase their strength and decrease the chance they would rupture or be punctured in a derailment.

The new standards include “a thicker, more puncture-resistant shell or jacket, extra protective head shields at both ends of tank car[s], and additional protection for the top fittings,” according to a release from the AAR.

In July 2011, with no movement from the federal PHMSA, the Association of American Railroads voluntarily adopted new standards for the manufacture of tank cars built after Oct. 1, 2011.

At a hearing yesterday held by the House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Robert Sumwalt, member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said that “NTSB is not convinced” the 2011 increases to tank car standards are enough of an improvement.

Tom Simpson, president of the Railway Supply Institute, an independent organization representing the rail supply industry, told The Enterprise that, as of Sept. 30, 2013, there have been 14,160 new DOT-111 tank cars built to the upgraded industry standards.

RSI estimates that, by the end of 2015, there will be 55,550 new and improved DOT-111 cars rolling on tracks nationwide.

RSI has also approached the federal government regarding new DOT-111 manufacturing standards to little avail.

“We have asked DOT to adopt these standards as federal regulation,” Simpson said. On March 9, 2012 the supply industry — consisting of shippers, railroads, and RSI — sent its request.

“The only response we got was an advance notice of proposed rulemaking,” issued in 2013 by PHMSA, he said.

On Sep. 4, 2013, PHMSA put out a press release about an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, stating it was “seeking public comment to further enhance the safe transportation of hazardous materials by rail tank cars…” At the Wednesday hearing, PHMSA Administrator Cynthia Quarterman said the agency is currently drafting a rule as a next step from the notice last fall.

Additionally, RSI has tried to fill the gap between DOT-111s built before October 2011 and cars built to the new standards by creating criteria for modifying or retrofitting old DOT-111s so they are as safe as the new ones.

“We have a proposal to DOT to modify [DOT-] 111 tank cars to make them less susceptible to something happening to them,” in the case of a derailment, said Simpson.

“It’s difficult for a company to modify a car without regulatory certainty that car will be allowed to continue to operate,” he said.

Initial speculation about why tank-owners don’t just retrofit their cars centered on cost, but the proposal by RSI downplays that factor.

“My organization, our members, have offered up a proposal,” Simpson said. “Because of this, we are prepared to take responsibility for what the costs may be.”

Starting points

In 2013, the Bakken region in North Dakota produced 289,896,588 barrels of crude oil, equivalent to over 12 billion gallons. Much of that oil was placed onto trains and moved across the county to oil refineries where the crude is processed and refined into more immediately useable forms such as kerosene and gasoline.

Recently, public interest in the trains rolling through Albany County and into the Port of Albany has increased. Concern has mounted as trains carrying Bakken crude derail, leading to fires and explosions that have caused injuries, deaths, and the evacuations of towns around the accidents.

The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency, is responsible for investigating accidents — aviation, railroad, marine, and pipeline — and preparing accident reports. After reports have been made, the NTSB provides safety recommendations to avoid future incidents.

However, these recommendations are just that: recommendations. The NTSB does not regulate the transportation of commodities; it acts solely as an investigator after an accident has occurred.

So who regulates the trains carrying materials both hazardous and innocuous? Multiple agencies layered on top of one another are in charge of everything from manufacturing rail cars to limiting the speed on trains carrying hazardous materials, and making sure those materials are properly labeled during shipping.

In 2009, North Dakota produced slightly less than 80 million barrels of oil. In 2012, that number increased over threefold, to over 243 million barrels. In December of 2013, about 28.6 million barrels were produced, over a third of what the state produced in the entirety of 2009.

The rapid increase in oil production in North Dakota, the second-highest oil producing state behind Texas, means an increase in the transport of oil.

“The market really chooses how it’s transported, and the preference right now is rail,” said Allison Ritter, spokeswoman for the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources.

“Everyone has been looking to the state for answers,” she said, “but the railroads are federally regulated.”

One agency charged with regulating the rail industry is the Federal Railroad Administration. As part of the United States Department of Transportation, the FRA creates, enacts, and enforces rail safety regulations across the country. It executes routine inspections on railroad tracks as well as works closely with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration on the safe movement of hazardous materials along railroad tracks.

In the summer of 2013, FRA and PHMSA joined together to start a new line of testing to properly classify crude oil being transported by rail and load it into the correct containers for shipping. This move towards improving accuracy of cargo categorization is called Operation Classification, while the crude testing itself is called the Bakken Blitz, in reference to the focus on oil from the Bakken formation, which some believe is more volatile than other types of crude.

Some products are required to be in pressurized tanks, while others are not. Also, commodities being shipped are put into packing groups based on flammability and other factors that would come into play in an accident. Proper cataloguing of oil is necessary for emergency responders to know how to handle a spill.

On Feb. 4, PHMSA put out a release, stating it had issued three Notices of Probable Violations to companies that did not have their oil properly classified during shipping. Hess Corporation, Whiting Oil and Gas Corporation, and Marathon Oil Company were issued fines totaling $93,000.

As a result of the discovery of these misclassifications, PHMSA is expanding the scope of the Operation Classification project to test for factors such as “corrosivity, hydrogen sulfide content and composition/concentration of the entrained gases in the material,” which may affect correct classification of material, the release stated.

The FRA also has strict standards for track safety, including detailed inspection procedures, and can set speed limits on tracks. Ultimately, railroad companies have to answer to the FRA if their tracks are not up to par.

In the rail industry, derailments are treated as given: Measures are put in place to try to avoid them, but they are bound to happen, so the focus is on decreasing the damage done when they do occur, the thinking goes. Derailments, which can be caused by human error, equipment failure, track defects, or signal problems, are most often the source of fires and explosions resulting from train accidents.

At yesterday’s hearing, Quarterman from the PHMSA said, “First we need to prevent derailments. A new tank car is not a silver bullet… they’re not built to withstand 40-, 50-, 60-mile-per-hour derailments.”

Since at least 2011, it has been documented that the tank cars used to transport crude oil, known as DOT-111s in the United States, after the Department of Transportation, are in need of structural improvements to safely transport hazardous material.

Close to home

While many proposals and commitments have been put forward with the goal of increasing safety throughout the transport of crude oil, accidents involving the substance have increased in recent years.

In his 2014-15 budget proposal, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo chose to include funding for five more freight rail inspectors, doubling the state’s inspection capability.

An executive order by Cuomo on Jan. 28 petitioned federal agencies to “upgrade tanker car and rail line safety,” and called for state agencies to “conduct as assessment of the State’s spill prevention and response rules” regarding crude oil.

CSX and Canadian Pacific (formerly known as CP Rail) are the two major rail lines running through Albany County. Guilderland Building and Fire Prevention Supervisor Don Albright said that CSX hosts classes to teach firefighters precautions in dealing with a rail accident, as well as how to read placards on train cars.

Responding to Enterprise questions via e-mail, Canadian Pacific spokesman Ed Greenberg said, “In 2013, CP hazardous materials experts trained more than 200 firefighters in New York State, including 20 in Albany.”

He also described the relationship CP has with local emergency responders this way: “Canadian Pacific experts work with local responders and community officials in conducting education sessions and various exercises, including full-scale emergency response drills.”

The Association of American Railroads has a program where local first responders can request a document from the railroads listing the top 25 hazardous materials shipped through their area. This list would allow emergency personnel to be even better prepared for a possible derailment and spill.

AAR is currently working on an online version of the list to expedite the availability of the information to first responders if an accident were to occurr.

Regarding the dispersal of this information, Congressman Tonko said “Communities have that right.”

“People who need to know what to do in case of an accident know what to do,” said Reilly, the spokeswoman for the railroad trade group. “But there could be some people who could do some harm with that information,” she continued, referencing the Department of Homeland Security’s involvement with requiring that only emergency responders have access to information about the contents of trains.

When asked if he knew about this program, Albright said, “I did not.”




More Regional News