Roundtable Review – Part 2: The latest on rail tank car safety

By Robert L. Sumwalt

In last week’s blog, Roundtable Review-Part 1, I provided an overview of the NTSB’s July 13, 2016, rail tank car roundtable. Today’s blog discusses how the industry is monitoring its progress and the available options for meeting the earliest federal deadlines.

FAST Act Phase-out ScheduleFollowing the February 2015 crude oil derailment and fire near Mt. Carbon, WV, the NTSB issued an urgent recommendation calling for the Department of Transportation to make a “publicly available reporting mechanism that reports at least annually, progress on retrofitting and replacing tank cars.” Section 7308 of the FAST (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) Act calls for the DOT Secretary to implement a reporting mechanism to monitor industry-wide progress toward meeting these federally-imposed deadlines. Many who participated in the roundtable were optimistic that the deadlines could be met.

More than two dozen rail tank car owners, operators, and manufacturers, as well as labor union representatives and transportation safety associations, came together to discuss ways industry and government can work together to overcome the challenges associated with meeting federally-imposed mandates that involve phasing out both legacy DOT-111 and CPC-1232 tank cars that carry flammable liquids (see image of timetable).

Participants addressed concerns with issues surrounding replacing older specification tank cars. “The one thing is to make sure we’ve got the best inspection and prevention techniques and technologies that we can possibly deploy,” said Hal Gard.

Gard is the rail administrator with Oregon’s DOT, a state which saw 42,000 gallons of crude oil spill along a scenic stretch along its revered Columbia River in Mosier after a derailment of CPC-1232 tank cars in June. “It was a bad day,” Gard said. “The CPC-1232s actually performed well, [but] we still are going to have to deal with the aftermath of that accident for a while.”

During the meeting, the roundtable participants dug into various details of and challenges associated with implementing the provisions of the FAST Act—for example, addressing differences between the types of tank cars currently in crude oil and ethanol service, specifications of the new DOT-117 cars, and various options available to the industry to retrofit.

Most agreed that it would take a sustained, concerted effort from all industry parties working together to meet the required deadlines. The shipper is responsible for the proper packaging of whatever they’re going to ship, reminded Robert Hulick, executive vice president with Trinity Rail. He said that many play a role in meeting deadlines, including the tank car owners and those who lease the cars. “It’s not any one party that makes that decision unilaterally,” he said.

Denford Jaja, with the Hess Corporation, agreed that there needs to be “a joint effort between the industry, the shippers, railroads, [and] the regulatory bodies.”

Jaja also said that when all parties involved have access to clear, validated information, it is easier to measure progress toward the goal. “We are fully supportive of a science- and fact-based approach to safety,” he said. “The faster we can resolve uncertainties, I think that’ll give us some certainty on the path forward.”

Andreas Aeppli, principal with Cambridge Systematics, said everyone who has a vested interest or role in the transport of commodities by rail needs to continue to educate themselves and understand what is actually required. For instance, while some of the most distant federal deadlines for halting the transport of crude oil and ethanol in DOT-111 and CPC-1232 tank cars aren’t until May 2025, the earliest mandates for some tank cars take effect much sooner, on January 1, 2018.

“It’s really important to have…information available because it’s freely out there. When you want to hold people’s feet to the fire, particularly as we get closer to the deadlines, [we need] to ensure that everybody is aware of what’s going on and adheres to the regulations and requirements that are being called for,” Aeppli said.

As stated in last week’s blog, those participating in the roundtable left feeling hopeful that progress would continue to be made. William Bates, a labor union legislative director with SMART Transportation Division, was among those who are cautiously optimistic. Addressing the entire roundtable, he said: “I would have the peace of mind knowing that I got the best equipment there. I hope that every car I pull is a [DOT] -117 or [one that has been] retrofitted. We need everybody’s help. Let’s get on the ball!”

For a complete transcript of the roundtable, see our “Events” page.

Robert L. Sumwalt is an NTSB Board Member and he moderated the roundtable

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