NTSB, Senate committee address rail safety issues

By Erin Voegele | March 13, 2014

The National Transportation Safety Board recently announced that it will hold a public forum on April 22-23 in Washington, D.C., to examine safety issues associated with the transportation of crude oil and ethanol by rail.

"While the soaring volumes of crude oil and ethanol traveling by rail has been good for business, there is a corresponding obligation to protect our communities and our environment," said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman in a statement. "This forum will explore both the risks and opportunities that exist to improve the safety of transporting these important commodities."

According to the NTSB, the forum, titled “Rail Safety: Transportation of Crude Oil and Ethanol,” will address DOT-111 tank car design, construction and crashworthiness, rail operations and risk management strategies, emergency response challenges and best practices. It will also address federal oversight.

The forum is scheduled to be held at the NTSB Board Room and Conference Center in Washington, D.C. The event will be free and open to the public. It will also be webcast. A detailed agenda and additional information on the meeting is expected to be released soon.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Sciences and Transportation also recently addressed rail safety during a March 6 hearing. The hearing, titled “Enhancing Our Rail Safety: Current Challenges for Passenger and Freight Rail,” aimed to examine the current state of safety on the nation’s passenger and freight rail networks.

In his opening remarks, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., ranking member of the committee, spoke about the implementation of Positive Train Control, a technology designed to automatically stop or slow a train before certain accidents occur. He said that while he agrees that PTC is an important safety technology that railroads should work to install as quickly as possible, he is concerned that the current statutory deadline of December 2015 is unrealistic. As such, he has worked with other senators to introduce legislation to extend that deadline.

Joseph Szabo, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, testified at the hearing, noting that since fiscal year 2004 total train accidents have declined by 47 percent. Total derailments have also decline by 47 percent, while highway-rail grade crossing accidents have declined by 35 percent. He also noted that in response to accidents involving tank cars carrying crude oil, the Department of Transportation, FRA and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration have taken actions on multiple fronts to mitigate risks and ensure the safe transportation of crude oil, ethanol and other hazardous materials by rail.

Szabo also explained the FRA’s vision for the next generation of rail safety, explaining that it focuses on three pillars. First, it involves continuing a rigorous regulatory and inspection program based on strategic use of data. Second, it advances proactive approaches for early identification and reduction of risk. Finally, it includes capital investments and robust research and development.

Cynthia Quarterman, administrator of the PHMSA, also testified at the hearing, focusing on the risks posed by the transport of bulk shipments of flammable liquids and PHMSA’s efforts to prevent and mitigate those risks. She detailed regulatory efforts and non-regulatory efforts taken by the PHMSA to increase safety.

In his testimony, Christopher Hart, vice chairman of the NTSB, spoke about increased traffic in the U.S. rail system. He said that ethanol traffic transported by railroad increased 442 percent between 2005 and 2010, and that in 2012 ethanol was the most frequently transported hazardous material in the railroad system. The transport of crude oil has also increased dramatically, growing by 443 percent since 2005. That growth is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

Hart also addressed the DOT-111 railcar design, noting that the NTSB has identified vulnerabilities in the tank car design with respect to tank heads, shells, and fittings. “The NTSB continues to assert that DOT-111 tank cars, or tank cars of any successor specification, that transport hazardous materials should incorporate more effective puncture-resistant and thermal protection systems. This can be accomplished through the incorporation of additional protective features such as full head shields, jackets, thermal insulation, and thicker head and shell materials. Because the average service life of a tank car may run 20-30 years, it is imperative that industry, the FRA, and PHMSA take action now to address hazards that otherwise would exist for another half- generation or longer,” he said in his written testimony.

Edward Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, spoke about the benefits of rail transportation and provided an overview of safety-enhancing rail technologies, including new tank car designs. Geoffrey Blackwell, chief of the Office of Native Affairs and Policy in the Consumer and Government Affairs Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission, and Bob Greco, group director of downstream operations at the American Petroleum Institute, also participated in the hearing.

Additional information on the hearing, including full written testimony and links to an archived webcast, are available on the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation website.