FRA: Rail Industry Is Meeting Safer Tank Car Standards
Three years ago, the federal government rolled out new safety standards for trains amid a growing number of oil shipments and derailments. Now, railroad companies are using safer tank cars to carry hazardous materials like crude oil throughout Wisconsin.
In May 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation began requiring high-hazard flammable trains with 20 or more tank cars carrying flammable liquids to operate at reduced speeds. The agency also required new braking standards for trains with 70 or more cars carrying volatile crude oil and retrofitting DOT-111 tank cars with thicker shells and thermal protection by March 2018.
The National Transportation Safety Board has said the design for DOT-111 tank cars is inadequate and prone to damage during derailments.
The rail industry has set up a system to verify that only authorized tank cars are used to transport flammable liquids, said Desiree French, spokeswoman with the Federal Railroad Administration.
"The U.S. Department of Transportation (FRA and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, PHMSA) are actively monitoring the phase-out/conversion progress of the tank cars authorized for flammable liquids service, and are coordinating with the industry when issues arise that may impact their ability to meet the prescribed deadlines," wrote French in an email.
At the peak of production in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields, BNSF railway had more than three dozen trains carrying 1 million gallons or more of crude oil throughout Wisconsin each week. Now, the railway company reports they have a fraction of that number — at most seven trains a week — carrying crude oil across nine counties in Wisconsin, according to records obtained by Wisconsin Public Radio.
BNSF Railway Spokeswoman Amy McBeth said they've been offering reduced rates to rail car companies that use the newer, safer DOT-117 model.
"BNSF doesn’t own the tank cars that are used to ship crude oil in particular on our network, but we work to get the safer tank cars in service sooner through incentivizing those safer cars, moving away from the DOT-111 tank cars," she said. "When you look at our network, we don’t have any legacy DOT-111 tank cars moving crude oil on our system at this point."
The state has witnessed a handful of train derailments in the last several years, including near Alma along the Mississippi River.
A BNSF train derailed due to operator error, causing 25 tank cars to jump the tracks and spilling more than 20,000 gallons of ethanol into the river. Another incident occurred the same weekend in Watertown, spilling around 500 gallons of crude oil. Canadian Pacific identified the cause of that derailment to be a flaw within the rail.
The U.S. DOT's safety standards and improvements to tank cars have been a positive step toward increasing rail safety in Wisconsin, said Yash Wadhwa, Wisconsin's railroad commissioner.