Safely Fueling the Future

By Robert L. Sumwalt

Promote Completion of Rail Safety Initiatives posterOn Wednesday, July 13, the NTSB will host a roundtable discussion comprised of more than two dozen experts from the nation’s railroad industry, including rail-car manufacturers and owners, union representatives, and transportation safety associations. We will be discussing issues that are critical to ensuring the timely implementation of new federal safety standards for rail tank cars that carry flammable liquids.

The transportation of crude oil, ethanol, and other flammable liquids on our nation’s railroads has skyrocketed in the past decade. The most common tank cars used to transport these hazardous materials are specification DOT-111 tank cars (legacy DOT-111) and a newer modified version of these tank cars, called CPC-1232s.

Since 2006, there have been 28 significant accidents in the U.S. and Canada involving flammable liquids transported by rail. These unfortunate events resulted in more than 5 million gallons of crude oil and ethanol spilling. They all involved legacy DOT-111 or CPC-1232 tank cars. NTSB investigations into these kinds of derailments, dating back to 1991, have shown that older general purpose tank cars lack sufficient crashworthiness. The risks are greater when such tank cars are transported in high numbers, as is seen in ethanol and crude oil unit trains.

The NTSB roundtable comes on the heels of the three-year anniversary of a tragic event involving 63 derailed legacy DOT-111 tank cars in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, which spilled 1.6 million gallons of crude oil. That July 6, 2013, accident and subsequent fire killed 47 people and destroyed the town center.

And the 13 tank cars that derailed in Mosier, Oregon, last month, dumping 42,000 gallons of crude oil were CPC-1232 tank cars.

Congress and the Department of Transportation announced last year new federal standards requiring the rail industry to meet tougher safety guidelines. These guidelines included retrofitting legacy tank cars with more robust safety features, and, in the case of new tank cars, building them to standards, known as DOT-117, that require increased puncture resistance and thermal protection in order to significantly reduce the likelihood of product release in a derailment.

The phase-in deadlines for these new tank cars range from 2018 to 2025 for crude oil and ethanol, and 2029 for all other Class 3 flammable liquids.

In our roundtable, we hope to gain deeper insight into the process involved in upgrading the rail industry’s existing tank fleet, as well as learn how all parties involved can overcome existing roadblocks to the successful and timely implementation of the new tank car rules. The safety of our communities, our economy, and the environment is at stake—and we shouldn’t have to wait another decade or more to see improvements.

The roundtable is open to the public and will be streamed via webcast. We’ll pose a number of questions to our experts during the session, and encourage viewers to submit questions in advance by e-mailing them to RailTankCarSafety@ntsb.gov.

Robert Sumwalt is an NTSB Board Member and will facilitate the roundtable discussion

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