In the News  Archive

Tougher Oil Tank Cars Sought

Times Union

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The president of the Railway Supply Institute, while describing the DOT-111 tank car as "a very safe vehicle," nevertheless is urging federal regulators to support the institute's recommendations for stronger tank cars to transport crude.

The tank car is the type involved in last summer's Quebec rail disaster that killed 47 people.

In a meeting Tuesday at the Times Union, Thomas Simpson also called for a "holistic" approach to reduce the risks associated with moving Bakken crude oil and other flammable liquids by rail.

The Port of Albany by some accounts is handling as much as a quarter of all the Bakken crude now being recovered through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The institute is proposing a steel shell that's 7/16ths inch thick, while the Association of American Railroads, which represents the nation's major rail companies, is proposing a thicker, 9/16ths-inch shell, he said.

"More steel is a heavier car, and less material you can carry," Simpson said. "But you are getting some measure of risk reduction with a thicker shell."

A holistic approach to risk reduction might also include improved track, signals and other infrastructure, and positive train control systems that would alert train crews to potential collisions and activate the brakes if the engineer fails to do so.

Railroads have faced a number of technical hurdles, including a lack of radio bandwidth for communications, that are slowly being cleared.

The institute's recommendations include adding steel jackets, shields at each end of the car, and better protection for fittings to make them better withstand an accident. Thermal protection is intended to slow the spread of flames.

While Simpson didn't have any figures on the costs of retrofitting existing DOT-111 cars, some estimates from suppliers put the cost at $60,000 to $70,000 per car. Each car holds about 30,000 gallons of crude.

Simpson said tank cars typically are designed for 50 years of service.

Of the nearly 98,000 tank cars used to carry flammable liquids such as crude and ethanol, nearly 67,000, about two-thirds, are DOT-111s that haven't been fitted with protective "jackets."

Simpson said 57,000 tank cars that meet the latest safety standards voluntarily adopted by the railroad industry in October 2011 are expected to be delivered by manufacturers by the end of 2015.

"If the Secretary (of Transportation Anthony Foxx) adopts our proposal, we can begin the effort to put new cars in the fleet and modify these cars," Simpson said. "Can you remove the risk entirely? I don't know."

With no pipelines in the region of North Dakota to ship the oil to refineries, railroads have developed pipelines on rails to move the oil to refineries along the East Coast. Much of that oil is transferred to barges and tankers at the Port of Albany.

The Bakken crude, with its dissolved gases and other chemicals, has been found to be more explosive than other types of crude, and federal regulators have issued warnings to those handling the crude.

Simpson said shippers have the responsibility to classify the types of products railroads carry.

Opponents of shipping crude by rail would rather see the practice end. One member of PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy, said last month the discussion should focus on ending dependence on fossil fuels entirely.

"We don't believe any upgrade to safe rail cars is possible," said Sandy Steubing of PAUSE. "They need to go away."

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