Lobbyist: Oil trains getting a bad rap

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The group that lobbies for the manufacturers of freight rail cars said Thursday that train cars that are used to ship oil are safer than they have been given credit for. 

The train cars in question, known as DOT-111s, have been involved in a pair of high-profile deadly accidents in Quebec, Canada, and Casselton, N.D., that resulted in explosions and massive oil spills.

The accidents have drawn the attention of regulators and lawmakers who are looking to make changes to the rules for shipping hazardous material on freight trains.  Some critics have suggested that the rail cars that were involved in the 2013 crashes should be taken off the tracks completely. 

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Railway Supply Institute President Thomas Simpson told The Hill on Thursday that the oil tank cars have gotten a bad rap because of the 2013 accidents.

"99.997 percent of hazardous materials that are shipped by rail cars arrive safely at their destinations," Simpson said. "The DOT-111 operates safely throughout North America every day."

Transportation officials in the Obama administration have painted a starkly different picture of the oil tanker rail cars.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in an appearance on MSNBC's "Rachel Maddow" show earlier this month that "the DOT-111 ... needs to be either retrofitted or replaced."

"I can tell you that I don't have confidence in the DOT-111," Foxx said. "I'm unconvinced that the 12-32, which is the upgraded car, is the absolute solution. I think there's probably going to need to be a new kind of tank car established to keep this country as safe as possible."

Former National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman issued similar warnings about oil train shipments by rail before she left office last month.

"The Association of American Railroads (AAR) stated in a 2012 report that crude oil traffic has grown by 443 percent since 2005,” Hersman said during her final NTSB forum on crude oil shipping safety. “With so much flammable liquid carried by rail, it is incumbent upon the rail industry, shippers, and regulators to ensure that these hazardous materials are being moved safely."

The NTSB also said in January that it was “concerned” about a “major loss of life, property damage and environmental consequences” if large volumes of crude or other flammable liquids are involved in a rail accident.

Lawmakers like Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) have pushed for a drastic overhaul of federal regulation of the freight rail industry's handling of oil shipments. 

Simpson said Thursday that there approximately 275,000 DOT-111 freight cars that are currently in operation. He said about 171,000 of the cars are used to transport hazardous materials. 

The Transportation Department is considering a rule that would increase the required thickness of oil tanker rail car shells from 7/16th of an inch to 9/16ths. 

The DOT and Association of American Railroads announced an agreement earlier this year to lower the speed limit for freight trains carrying crude oil by this summer. They also agreed to inspect tracks more frequently as part of the new safety effort.

Under the agreement, freight companies were scheduled to increase by at least one the number of track inspections they completed in March.

Simpson said Thursday that the freight rail supply industry is OK with the changes that have already been made and could live with the increased thickness requirement if it was eventually adopted.

But he said that removing the rail cars from service altogether would badly hamstring the crude oil cargo industry.

"If you embargo even a portion of these cars, you will severely disrupt the movement of crude and ethanol," he said. "Railroads are safe. There's no better way to move the hazardous materials that our society demands. There's no highway alternative, there's no pipeline alternative."

Supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline have argued that it would be safer to ship the crude oil if the controversial project was approved.

Simpson said Thursday that pipelines do not come with any extra safety guarantees.

"Pipelines do have accidents," he said. "If there is a leak, pipelines continue to pump."

Simpson added that the freight rail supply industry has "voluntarily" invested in upgrading rail cars that are used to carry crude oil shipments.

"In the aftermath of Lac-Megantic, our industry realized that the status quo wasn't going to satisfy regulators," he said.

But he said there is a limit to the freight rail supply industry's willingness to make changes on its own without "certainty" from federal regulators.

"We will no longer take voluntary steps until we can be assured of regulatory certainty," he said. "It's important to us so that we can begin modifying our fleet or putting new cars into operation."

The Transportation Department is expected to issue a notice of proposed rule making on its recommended changes this summer.