More than 1.1 million gallons of oil spilled from rail tank cars in the U.S. in 2013…more than the total volume spilled from 1975 to 2012 combined (New Republic).
These data, together with the disastrous oil train derailment, explosions, fire, spilling of 1.6 million gallons of oil, and the deaths of 47 people last July in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, have brought tremendous pressure on the U.S. and Canadian governments to get back in the business of regulating rail safety, after years of letting the rail industry essentially regulate itself.
Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed the phasing out of thousands of older DOT-111 tank cars within 2 years. These tank cars have been known for decades to puncture easily during derailments and other accidents. The phase-out period for replacing or retrofitting the DOT-111 tank cars is shorter than Transport Canada’s phase-out period of 3 years for the same cars, announced a few months ago (Edmonton Journal). However, rail safety experts and environmental groups in the U.S. say 2 years is too long to wait. Similar criticisms have been made of the 3-year phase-out period in Canada.
Until sturdier tank cars are phased in, the new U.S. rules would also reduce the speed limit for high-hazard trains to 40 miles per hour. It’s been suggested that even sturdier tank cars traveling at speeds of 30 m.p.h. may not be able to avoid getting punctured. Karl Alexy, the staff director of the Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety said, “When you begin to look at cars that are derailing at speeds of 30, 40 miles an hour, it’s very difficult, it’s a big ask, to expect that a tank car get hit and not be breached”.
The proposed new U.S. rules would also require better labels on hazardous cargo and require rail companies to perform a risk assessment before choosing routes for the transport of hazardous goods.
Fred Millar, an independent rail safety consultant, said the rules for new tank cars and speed limits are “very weak”. He criticized the Obama administration for not requiring more transparency on the oil train routes and the risks they pose to public safety and security.
It’s no surprise that the Association of American Railroads and the American Petroleum Institute are complaining about the proposed rule changes, arguing that lower speed limits are unnecessary and would cut into their profits.
See this link for more information on the many risks associated with shipping oil and other hazardous goods by rail.