New oil train safety rules spell delay, leaving citizens at risk

Chicago, Philadelphia and Sacramento, Calif.: These are just a few of the cities within the "blast zones" of mile-long trains carrying flammable crude oil across the country. Twenty-five million Americans live in these vulnerable areas; yet it will be years until dangerous tank cars are retrofitted or retired from the rails, based on the U.S. Department of Transportation's new safety standards.

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The standards, released on May 1, cover railcars that carry the nation's growing supply of volatile crude oil produced in the Bakken region of the northern United States and the Canadian tar sands. While the new rules mark incremental progress, they give residents little reason to rest easy. And more implementation delays could be coming — the American Petroleum Institute filed a petition in federal court on Monday challenging the new rules, and other legal challenges may be on the horizon.

When it comes to oil train derailments, it's no longer a question of "if," but "when." Driven by growth in the production of oil in the U.S. and Canada, there has been a staggering increase in rail transportation of crude oil over the past five years, with a corresponding spike in the number of accidents — many causing explosions, oil spills and fatalities. The latest incident happened earlier this month, when a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed and caught fire in central North Dakota, forcing the evacuation of a small town.

In 2008, only 9,500 tank car loads of crude were transported by rail in the United States. By 2013, that number rose to 400,000. In 2013, more oil spilled from U.S. trains than in the previous four decades combined. In addition to putting citizens directly at risk, these trains pass over important sources of drinking water — such as the Sacramento River in drought-stricken California — and share track with commuter rail in many urban areas, including Philadelphia.

The Department of Transportation initiated a rule-making last year to update railcar design standards, speed limits and routing requirements for trains carrying 20 carloads or more of flammable crude oil. The agency's final rule maintains some of the positive aspects of its proposed rule: new electronically controlled pneumatic brake requirements, lower speed limits for older tank cars moving through "high-threat urban areas," and new routing analysis requirements.

But, in other ways, the final rule represents a step backwards from the Department of Transportation's initial proposal. And more fundamentally, the rule puts a Band-Aid on a chronic condition caused by booming fossil fuel production, ongoing reliance on oil and aging transportation infrastructure.

First, the final rule exempts many trains that would have been made safer under the initial proposal. Originally, any train carrying 20 or more cars with flammable oil or ethanol was defined as a "high-hazard flammable train" subject to these standards. The final rule applies only to trains carrying at least 35 tank cars of flammable oil or ethanol, or 20 cars of flammable liquid in a continuous block. This final definition, then, encompasses fewer trains.

Second, the rule suffers from a lengthy, five- to eight-year retrofit or phaseout of DOT-111 and CPC-1232 railcars that have been known to puncture upon derailment for many years. These are the same cars that were involved in the Lac Mégantic, Quebec tragedy in July 2013 that killed 47 people and in the five major accidents in 2015 (thus far) in West Virginia, Illinois, North Dakota and two locations in Ontario. The protracted phaseout means many additional years of dangerous tank cars sharing track with commuter rail, traveling through dense population centers, and crossing water bodies and other sensitive environmental habitats. The delay is especially striking, as National Transportation Safety Board reports dating back to 1991 detail the high failure and puncture rates of DOT-111 tank cars. However, the agency determined that a quicker phaseout of DOT-111 cars would cause negative effects by temporarily shifting oil transportation from rail to trucks, increasing hazardous air pollution and traffic-related fatalities.

Finally, while the rule imposes 40-mph speed limits for non-retrofitted trains traveling through "high threat urban areas," only a few dozen cities around the nation have been so designated, leaving many towns, cities and drinking-water sources highly vulnerable.

In the next year, the Department of Transportation should prioritize additional measures, like increasing railcar and track inspections, lowering speed limits in additional urban areas, sharing risk reduction "best practices" among the railroads and potentially tightening design standards for retrofitted cars to align with the standards for new cars.

The department should also coordinate closely with the states to modernize communication systems, improve spill prevention and response planning, ensure that states are empowered to train and fund additional rail inspectors, and collaborate to identify high-priority infrastructure needs, such as bridge and track improvements.

Ideally, these safety improvements should be made as part of an "all of the above" strategy to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels while ensuring that domestic production and transportation are as safe as possible in the near-term. The new rail safety rules are a necessary first step on what looks to be a long, uncertain journey.

Hein is the policy director at the Institute for Policy Integrity, focusing on climate change, energy and transportation issues.

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