NTSB calls for replacing oil trains more quickly

NTSB calls for replacing oil trains more quickly
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The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on Monday issued a set of “urgent” recommendations for replacing controversial oil train cars more quickly than federal regulators planned. 

The Obama administration has moved to require older crude oil freight rail cars that have been involved in a series of high-profile crashes to be replaced within 10 years. 

NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said Monday that the tank cars, known as DOT-111s, though are too dangerous to leave on the rails for that long. 

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“We can’t wait a decade for safer rail cars,” Hart said in a statement.

“Crude oil rail traffic is increasing exponentially. That is why this issue is on our Most Wanted List of Safety Improvements," he continued. "The industry needs to make this issue a priority and expedite the safety enhancements, otherwise, we continue to put our communities at risk.”

The DOT-111s rail cars have been at the center of controversy after a series of oil train accidents in North America since 2013, including in North Dakota and New Brunswick and Quebec, Canada. The cars, which make up the majority of tankers currently being used on U.S. railways, have not been upgraded for decades.

The Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) have proposed new standards for trains containing crude oil tankers that call for the controversial cars to be retrofitted or replaced.

The NTSB though said in a report containing its recommendations that even the retrofitted DOT-111 tank cars will be vulnerable to explosive crashes. 

“The NTSB preliminary assessment of nonthermally protected CPC-1232 tank car survivability in recent crude oil unit train accidents has identified a significant vulnerability to thermal failures. This vulnerability exists with the legacy DOT-111 tank cars as well,” the agency said. 

“The NTSB believes that a 10-year deadline for retrofitting or removing from service CPC-1232 tank cars is excessively long,” the report continued.

“With North American crude oil production expected to increase by more than 5 million barrels per day by 2024, the NTSB is concerned that such a timeline for action would present increasing risk of severe injury to persons, property, and environmental damage for many years to come.” 

Freight rail industry groups said Monday they support many of the NTSB’s recommendations, but would prefer to wait for the Transportation Department’s rules to be finalized. 

“The nation’s freight railroads have long advocated for tougher federal rules on tank cars and believe that every tank car moving crude oil today should be phased out or built to a higher standard, including thicker shells, thermal protection, appropriately-sized pressure relief devices and other enhancements,” the Association of American Railroads said in a statement that was provided to The Hill. 

“The freight rail industry supports an aggressive retrofit or replacement program and believes final regulations on new tank car standards will provide certainty and chart a new course in the safer movement of crude oil by rail,” the AAR continued. 

Lawmakers who have called for more stringent oil train regulations applauded the NTSB for sounding the alarm about the need to replace older tank cars more quickly than rail companies would prefer, however.

“For nearly 25 years, NTSB has been pushing to increase safety standards for rail tank cars carrying hazardous materials,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (Ore.), the top ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee.  

“The recommendations issued today to replace the outdated, unsafe rail cars moving hazardous materials through our communities are just common sense,” DeFazio continued.

“I am very happy to see that they recommended thermal protection for cars carrying hazardous materials, an aggressive retrofit or replacement schedule, and a transparent, publicly available reporting mechanism to report tank car replacement," he added. "I applaud these suggestions and urge [the Office of Management and Budget] to expedite the rule to increase safety and protect our communities as soon as possible.”

The full NTSB recommendation can be read here