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Rail safetyConcerns about safety of rail transport of energy liquids, gases

Published 18 October 2017

The U.S. increased production of crude oil, natural gas, and corn-based ethanol created unforeseen demands and safety challenges on their long-distance transportation via pipelines, tank barges, and railroad tank cars. A debate is underway about whether the domestic energy revolution was placing stress on the transportation system that would sacrifice safety.  

With the sharp and largely unexpected increase in the long-distance movement of domestically produced crude oil, ethanol, and natural gas since 2005, a number of concerns have arisen about the safe transport of these hazardous materials, particularly in relation to railroad track defects, rural communities’ emergency response preparedness, and the older tank car designs that will continue to be used in multi-car unit trains, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Pipelines and barges have accommodated major portions of the growth in domestic energy liquids and gases, and they have done so without major new safety problems and within the basic framework of their longstanding regulatory and safety assurance systems. NAS says that the committee that carried out the study and wrote the report stressed that to the credit of transportation service providers from all of the modes as well as their safety regulators, the vast majority of these energy supplies have been transported without incident, enabling the country to capitalize on its new energy resources and manage the safety risks associated with its transportation.

The U.S. increased production of crude oil, natural gas, and corn-based ethanol created unforeseen demands and safety challenges on their long-distance transportation via pipelines, tank barges, and railroad tank cars. When this study commenced in late 2015, a national debate was underway about whether the domestic energy revolution was placing stress on the transportation system that would sacrifice safety.  Railroad tank cars and tank barges were hauling oil and fuel ethanol in increasingly larger quantities and over longer distances, often on routes passing through communities that had little, if any, experience with regular and large quantities of flammable liquids traffic. 

In light of these changes, the National Academies, under the auspices of the Transportation Research Board, sponsored this study of the three major long-distance modes of energy transportation. The study makes policy recommendations that can help reduce the likelihood of future incidents involving the transportation of these domestic energy supplies as well as ensure an effective emergency response when incidents do occur.  The committee noted in its report that it focused on the individual safety concerns for each of the three modes of transportation and highlighted the difficulties in making direct comparisons of safety performance. One reason, for instance, is that some modes of transportation are not viable alternatives in some regions and for some shipments.