New safety rules for crude oil shipments by rail criticized by both sides

The Houston Chronicle reports that the bill would raise an estimated $600 million to train first responders, clean up spills, and relocate rail tracks around populated areas. “The idea is to speed up the phase-out of older tank cars,” said Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon). He added it “allows us to move in a much faster and more aggressive fashion to make oil by rail transportation safer.”

Regarding new brake systems, DOT claims that electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes are more effective than air brakes or dynamic brakes that are currently being used, and that their use would allow train operators to stop faster if there was an obstacle on the tracks. Railroads are pushing back on having to adopt ECP brakes by 2021.

“The DOT couldn’t make a safety case for ECP but forged ahead anyway,” Edward R. Hamberger, the president and chief executive of the Association of American Railroads (AAR), said in a statement. “I have a hard time believing the determination to impose ECP brakes is anything but a rash rush to judgment.”

AAR has estimated the cost of installing ECP brakes to be $9,665 per tank car. Sarah Feinberg, the acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, said: “The mission of the FRA is safety and not focusing on what is convenient or inexpensive or provides the most cost savings for the rail industry. When I focus on safety, I land on ECP. It’s a very black-and-white issue for me.”

The Railway Supply Institute, which represents tank car makers, also criticized the use of ECP brakes, saying their effectiveness was not proved and would not provide a significant safety advantage.

Local and state officials have spent the past year asking for a federal mandate that requires railroads to notify local public safety officials of any oil train traffic, but according to the new regulations, railroads will need to have only a “point of contact” for information related to the routing of hazardous materials. Senators Wyden and Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) are disappointed that DOT officials failed to expand public information about oil trains. “Instead of providing first responders more details about oil shipments, railroads will simply be required to give our firefighters a phone number,” they said.

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) wants oil companies to reduce the volatility of Bakken crude, which is more likely to catch fire and explode than other forms of crude, but the new rules failed to address her concern. “It does nothing to address explosive volatility, very little to reduce the threat of rail car punctures, and is too slow on the removal of the most dangerous cars,” she said. “It’s more of a status quo rule.”