A recent news report announced that "as many as 44 trains loaded with volatile Bakken crude oil" are passing through New York each week. This confidential information was passed to Reuters through a Freedom of Information Law request, as train companies only share route information with official emergency responders.
However, this type of news story, which alerts the public to the potential danger (and of which there are now many, every day), is evidence that the Emergency Order, enforced in May 2014 by the US Department of Transportation (DOT), is in full swing. Before May 2014, there was no obligation for freight trains to declare their whereabouts, whether they were carrying Bakken oil or not.
Advance warnings to SERCS
The DOT’s Emergency Order now requires all railroads operating trains containing 1,000,000 gallons or more of Bakken crude oil to give SERCS advance notice of trains travelling through a state. The order was put in place by Anthony R Foxx, Secretary of Transportation, in a bid to improve the safety and emergency response to incidents following several high profile rail disasters.
These many incidents include the derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where an unattended train rolled down a hill and derailed causing explosions and fires that killed 47 people; the 17-car derailment and explosion in Lynchburg, Virginia, where 30,000 gallons of oil spilled in to the James River; and a derailment in Casselton, North Dakota, where ruptured derailed cars of a BNSF crude oil train spilled 400,000 gallons of oil, causing a significant fire and damage of around $8m.
While these catastrophic rail events are on the rise, so is the production of oil in the Bakken region and the demand for rail transport. North Dakota is now the number two oil-producing state (behind Texas) and the North Dakota Petroleum Council reported that it surpassed one million barrels of daily oil production in April 2014. There are enough reserves to last for around 30 years, but because the state lacks pipelines, more than two thirds of the oil is shipped by rail, much of it on BNSF and Canadian Pacific tracks.
The tragic derailment at Lac-Mégantic renewed calls for improved safety standards on Canada’s extensive railway.
The US DOT has said that safety is its priority, and Foxx has previously stated that "all options are on the table when it comes to improving the safe transportation of crude oil", but is enforcing route communicating to emergency responders and a tough stance on older cars enough?
Specialised emergency response training
"Safety is our number one priority and part of that is enabling emergency first responders to be as prepared as possible to help protect the public in times of an emergency," says Kevin Thompson, associate administrator for communications and legislative affairs at the DOT’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
The Transportation Technology Center (TTCI) – a subsidiary of the American Railroad Association (AAR) – has contributed $5m to the development of specialised crude by rail training and tuition for local first responders. In addition to the training, TTCI is developing an online version to distribute to local firehouses.
"Railroads are individually ramping up training along their lines – they estimate collectively they train roughly 20,000 firefighters and first responders each year," says an AAR spokesperson, adding that both CSX and NS, this summer, have been doing safety train tours with the Transportation Community Awareness and Emergency Response programme.
Although local authorities and communities can now prepare better for an incident, is the order actually having an effect on safety? Paul Sando, an expert in railroad and transportation logistics and associate Professor of geography at Minnesota State University Moorhead, believes not a great deal.
"The order has forced the railroads to report not only events involving oil trains, but all hazardous liquids – prior to this, railroads only alerted local authorities when there was a serious problem such as a leak, fire or explosion," says Sando. "If a train derailed on railroad property, and nothing leaked or burned, they were under no obligation to report anything to the locals, but they did have to eventually report the incident to the federal authorities. This has now changed. Is it having an effect on safety? Not much, but it is perhaps a psychological reassurance."
Old tank cars vs new tank cars
With the Emergency Order came the recommendation to "avoid the use of older legacy DOT Specification 111 or CTC 111 tank cars for the shipment of Bakken crude oil". So what greater protection do the newer models offer and how significant is the difference?
"Although the legacy DOT 111 tank car does meet current DOT specification, has a minimum shell thickness of 7/16-inch steel, contains a maximum gross rail load of 263,000 pounds and can transport hazardous products safely, these tank cars are not always equipped with some of the additional features that are standards on new models," says Thompson.
"Higher integrity tank cars may have thicker shells, head shields, top fittings and thermal protections, and may provide better protection against puncture should an accident occur or could improve the behavior of the tank in the event of a fire."
Train companies, however, are not in control of these decisions as the tank cars for crude oil shipments are shipper supplied. But Canadian Pacific has introduced a tariff on shippers that continue to use the older tank car, to try and push for the higher integrity tank cars. "Our railroad believes increases in federal tank car safety standards remain the single most important step to improving rail transport of dangerous goods," says Ed Greenberg, director of external affairs for Canadian Pacific.
BNSF is going even further. Sando explains that BNSF has committed to an option to build 4,000 to 5,000 new tank cars, according to the new specifications, which would be owned by the railroad, a departure from the common practice of the cars being owned by shippers and third party lessors. And while he does not believe that just because the railcar is an older design that it is more likely to derail, he does think that the risk of ensuing fires and explosions could be reduced with stronger design.
Safety in multiple crew numbers
With the Lac-Mégantic disaster in mind, the discussion about crew numbers is a hot topic. The MMA train that caused the explosion in Lac-Mégantic had only one crew member responsible for 72 cars of oil on board. When questioned about crew numbers for freight trains, Thompson explains that there is "no specific regulation or law regulating a specific number of crew members for a freight train in the United States".
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But, he says, in order to comply with all existing US safety regulations, a rail carrier would be hard pressed to operate a train with a single person crew and comply with all existing safety regulations. "In fact most Class I railroads routinely operate with multiple person crews in the United States," he adds.
Thompson reveals that, following Lac-Mégantic, the FRA began drafting a proposed rule on appropriate crew size. This followed a Railroad Safety Advisory Committee presentation, made on 6 March 2014, which estimated that 4% to 6% of all railroads employ single-person crews. As the FRA expects that number to increase throughout the industry, it was concluded that multi-person crews would reduce the risk of incidents caused by human error.
Canadian Pacific explains that all its trains operate a two-man crew, and Sando firmly believes that a one-man crew is not enough. While rail operators have always opted for smaller crews for the sake of cost savings, he says, two should be the norm. In limited cases, such as when transporting hazardous materials, he suggests the operator should consider four-person crews. "It might cost a bit more, but one major catastrophe averted would pay for it," he says.
Stabilising to reduce volatility
Safety measures aside, could stabilising the crude oil also help to minimise disasters should an incident occur involving the volatile Bakken oil?
Earlier this year, the DOT issued a safety alert from its Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration warning that "crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil". It reminded responders that light, sweet crude oil, such as that coming from the Bakken region, is typically assigned a packing group (PG) I or II. The ratings mean that the material’s flashpoint is below 73 degrees Fahrenheit and for packing group I materials, the boiling point is below 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
"This means the materials pose significant fire risk if released from the package in an accident," says the alert document. The DOT says it is currently evaluating whether stabilising crude oil will produce an overall safety benefit and reduce transportation risks. The oil companies are generally resistant to this additional step as it would mean a longer product cycle and funding the cost of the stabilising infrastructure.
Overall, while Sando says all these safety improvements are positive moves, he believes that they will take a while to implement and for their effects to be known. "If you have the wrong set of circumstances present in a derailment, it can still be a conflagration despite newer safety designs, well-trained crews, and so on," he says. "A train derailment produces physical forces that most of us cannot comprehend easily."