NTSB makes rail car safety recommendations to PHMSA

By Erin Voegele | April 07, 2015

On April 6, the National Transportation Safety Board issued four recommendations to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration calling for more stringent safety requirements for rail cars transporting flammable liquids, such as crude oil and ethanol.

 “We can’t wait a decade for safer rail cars,” said NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart. “Crude oil rail traffic is increasing exponentially. That is why this issue is on our Most Wanted List of Safety Improvements. The industry needs to make this issue a priority and expedite the safety enhancements, otherwise, we continue to put our communities at risk.”

In a statement, the NTSB said the current fleet of DOT-111 railcars rupture too quickly when exposed to a pool fire caused by a derailment or other accident with resulting spillage and ignition. In addition, the NTSB said based on a series of accidents it has investigated in recent months, performance of the newer, enhanced CPC-1232 tank car is not satisfactory under these conditions either. “Neither the DOT-111 tank cars nor those manufactured to the CPC-1232 standard are required to be equipped with thermal protection systems to protect the tank from exposure to pool or torch fire conditions that can occur in accidents,” said the NTSB in its recommendations.

The NTSB goes on to note that some tank cars, such as pressure tank cars used to transport flammable gases, must comply with regulations that require thermal protection systems under Title 49 Code of Federal Regulations Section 179.18 (a) (49 CFR 179.18(a)). Tank cars that have these thermal protection systems can be subjected to a pool fire for 100 minutes or a torch fire for 30 minutes without releases of any lading from the tank car, expect through the pressure relief valve. The NTSB explains the 100-minute benchmark was established to provide emergency responders with adequate time to assess a derailment, establish perimeters, and evacuate the public as needed, while also giving time to vent the hazardous material from the tank through the pressure relief device and prevent an energetic tank car failure.

In August 2014, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration published a proposed rule in the Federal Register proposing new tank car standards for certain trains transporting large volumes of Class 3 flammable liquids. According to the NTSB, the proposed rule included a new specification DOT-117 tank car that would be required, among other things, to have a jacket and a thermal protection system in accordance with 49 CFR 179.18(a). In addition, the rulemaking would require equivalent thermal protection system retrofits to legacy DOT-111 and the CPC-1232 tank cars to meet the same performance standard.

To develop its recommendations, the NTSB examined damaged tank cars following a Feb. 16, 2015 derailment of a CSX Transportation crude oil unit train in Mount Carbon, West Virginia, as well as a review of data collected from two crude oil accidents that occurred this year in Gogama, Ontario and one that occurred in Galena, Illinois. According to the NTSB, preliminary investigation results indicate that a total of 28 CPC-1232 compliant tank cars thermally failed in these four accidents.

The NTSB has made several specific recommendations to the PHMSA. The first recommendation calls for all new and existing tank cars used to transport all Class 3 flammable liquids to be equipped with thermal protection systems that meet or exceed the thermal performance standards outlined in 49 CFR 179.18(a) and are appropriately qualified for the tank car configuration and the commodity transported. Second, the NTSB recommends all new and existing tank cars used to transport Class 3 flammable liquids be equipped with appropriately sized pressure relief devices that allow the release of pressure under fire conditions to ensure thermal performance that meets or exceeds 49 CFR 179.18(a) and minimizes the likelihood of energetic thermal ruptures. Third, the recommendations call for an aggressive, intermediate progress milestone schedule for the replacement or retrofitting of legacy DOT-111 and CPC-1232 tank cars to appropriate tank car performance standards, that includes equipping these cars with jackets, thermal protection, and appropriately sized pressure relief devices. Finally, the NTSB recommends the establishment of a publicly available reporting mechanism that reports at least annually on progress made regarding the retrofit and replacement of tank cars subject to thermal protection system performance standards.

In response to the NTSB’s recommendations, Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, noted there are obvious differences between crude oil and ethanol and stressed that the RFA doesn’t think all Class 3 flammable liquids should be treated the same.

“It is clear from the NTSB’s report, and its focus on the last four crude oil incidents between February and March of this year, that there is something unique about Bakken crude that is causing it to be highly explosive,” Dinneen said. “The U.S. ethanol industry is deeply committed to rail safety. Indeed, we are proud of our enviable safety record. Because of the obvious differences between highly volatile crude oil and ethanol, we don’t think all Class 3 flammable liquids should be treated the same. The NTSB should focus on the commodity being transported that is posing the most risk to our communities, and raising the most concern from the public.”

“We also believe that any effort to address rail safety must look at the root causes of the derailment, especially rail operations and track integrity,” Dinneen continued. “We can make appropriate improvements to the tank car, but ultimately the focus should be on preventing these incidents in the first place. If the effort only looks at the tank car, we will have done nothing to avoid more tragedies in the future and that would be a callous insult to the 47 lives lost in Quebec.”

Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy, has also weighed in on the NTSB’s recommendations. “The ethanol industry has and continues to safely deliver thousands of railcars every day,” Buis said. “As nearly all of the recent derailments have been caused by broken rail or operator error, we believe the focus should be on prevention of derailments in the first place rather than retrofitting the entire rail fleet at considerable expense without commensurate benefit in safety.”

A full copy of the NTSB’s safety recommendations is available on its website.