In tandem with its counterpart regulators in Canada, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on Thursday issued a series of recommendations calling for tougher standards for rail shipments of crude oil in both nations. NTSB and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada issued the recommendations jointly in recognition that the same companies operate crude rail trains in both nations, frequently crossing the U.S.-Canada border.

NTSB called the joint move unprecedented and in response to growing concerns about “major loss of life, property damage and environmental consequences” from the increasing large volumes of crude oil being carried by railroads in North America.

“The large-scale shipment of crude oil by rail simply didn’t exist 10 years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up with this new reality,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman. “While the energy boom is good for business, the people and environment along rail corridors must be protected from harm.”

Momentum has been building for new and tougher standards for crude rail shipments following an incident in North Dakota just before the new year, a earlier deadly incident in Quebec in eastern Canada and a growing recognition of the shale boom’s push for more use of rail shipments in the oil industry (see Shale Daily, Jan. 15; Aug. 22, 2013; Nov. 2, 2012).

In its latest move, the NTSB issued three recommendations to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the first of which is to require “hazardous material route planning” by the railroads to avoid populated and other sensitive geographical areas.

The other two require FRA and PHMSA to development audit programs of rail carriers response capabilities and separate audits of shippers’ and carriers’ classification of hazardous materials.

FRA and PHMSA are to ensure that the railroads have the capability to respond to worst-case discharges of the entire quantity of oil product carried on a given train. Similarly, they need to also ensure that the shippers and carriers have properly classified hazardous materials being transported with adequate accompanying safety and security plans in place.

NTSB pointed out that PHMSA has been considering new crude tank car design requirements since the 2009 crude train derailment in Cherry Valley, IL, but its sister federal agency has yet to issue any new federal rules, particularly regarding the DOT-111 tank cars’ head and shell to make the cars more “puncture resistant” and requiring that bottom outlet valves remain closed during accidents.

In the wake of the most recent incident involving Bakken crude in a derailment in Casselton, ND, oil industry representatives were critical of both the railroads for not doing more to prevent derailments and of PHMSA for not moving more quickly and decisively (see Shale Daily, Jan. 17).

“If unit trains of flammable liquids are going to be part of our nation’s energy future, we need to make sure the hazardous materials classification is accurate, the route is well planned, and the tank cars are as robust as possible,” Hersman said.