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NTSB Urges Swift Action on Rail Tank Cars

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) urged the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) to adopt four safety recommendations for rail cars that carry flammable liquids, including crude oil and ethanol.

In a 10-page letter to Timothy Butters, PHMSA's acting administrator, NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said investigators were still analyzing data from four recent rail car accidents, including two in Canada. "Nonetheless, the preliminary findings have convinced NTSB that the tank car safety deficiencies in pool fire survivability should be addressed expeditiously," Hart wrote.

NTSB recommended requiring all new and existing tank cars used to transport Class 3 Flammable Liquids be fitted with thermal protection systems that meet or exceed the thermal performance standards outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations -- specifically, Title 29, Section 179.18(a) -- and that tank cars have an appropriate design for the commodity being transported. It recommended tank cars be equipped with appropriately sized pressure relief devices, which would allow the release of pressure under fire conditions and reduce the chance of a thermal rupture.

The agency also recommended that PHMSA implement "an aggressive, intermediate progress milestone schedule" for retrofitting DOT-111 and CPC-1232 tank cars to the aforementioned standards, or replace them altogether. NTSB suggested a timeline for the industry to replace 20% of its applicable rolling stock every year over a five-year period.

"We can't wait a decade for safer rail cars," Hart said in a separate statement Monday. "Crude oil rail traffic is increasing exponentially. That is why this issue is on our Most Wanted List of Safety Improvements. The industry needs to make this issue a priority and expedite the safety enhancements; otherwise, we continue to put our communities at risk."

PHMSA should also report to the public, at least once a year, on the progress of retrofitting or replacing the tank cars, NTSB recommended.

Last month, the Transportation Board of Canada voiced similar concern over a plan by regulators in that country to phase out DOT-111 tank cars for transporting crude oil, suggesting that a deadline of 2025 isn't soon enough (see Shale DailyMarch 19March 12). Officials in Canada and the United States have said DOT-111 tank cars should be removed from service due to dangerous design flaws (see Shale DailyJuly 25, 2013).

"Transport Canada noted that it continues to work in close collaboration with PHMSA and the FRA [Federal Railroad Administration] to develop stricter requirements for tank cars carrying flammable liquids in North America," Hart said in the letter to Butters. "As such, it is likely that the PHMSA final rule will be harmonized with the proposed Transport Canada regulations.

"The NTSB is concerned that any retrofit, repurpose, and retirement plan that establishes only a final deadline far in the future could encourage car owners to delay needed tank car safety improvements until the deadline date. The NTSB concludes that a comprehensive and aggressive implementation schedule with transparent progress reporting of intermediate progress milestones is necessary to ensure completion of tank car improvements within a reasonable time period."

Last month, Butters told a House Appropriations subcommittee that the U.S. Department of Energy was analyzing ways to control the volatility of highly flammable crude oil, and expected to have the project completed by this fall (see Shale DailyMarch 25).

Hart said NTSB is still investigating a Feb. 16 accident that occurred in southern West Virginia, when a 109-car CSX Corp. train loaded with crude oil from the Bakken Shale derailed and burned. It is also studying a March 5 derailment and pool fire near Galena, IL (see Shale DailyMarch 6Feb. 17). All of the tank cars in both incidents were CPC-1232.

NTSB also collected data from two accidents that occurred near Gogama, Ontario, Canada, on Feb. 14 and March 7. Both incidents involved Canadian National trains and CPC-1232 tank cars.

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