Reengineering Hazardous Rail Cars

New changes are coming to an old problem on the rails.

A little more than a year after the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster, the tanker car design involved (the DOT-111) is still under fire. There has been a festering debate about its suitability for years, but now there is some new momentum toward change. The Obama administration has set out new regulations to impact the rail industry and lessen the likelihood of future rail disasters involving flammable liquids.

In an announcement by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), a number of procedural and design changes will be required of the rail industry. According to the report, “These proposed requirements are designed to lessen the frequency and consequences of train accidents/incidents (train accidents) involving certain trains transporting a large volume of flammable liquids.”

Operation Safe Delivery, as it is called, will apply a number of measures to enhance safety. Among these are the phasing out of older tank cars, lowering the speed limit in certain areas and improving brakes. Perhaps the most costly and logistically complex is the replacement or retrofitting of the old DOT-111 tanker cars.

DOT-111 type cars comprise the majority of tanker cars and have a history of spills and explosions. This has been partly attributed to the ease with which their shell is punctured during derailment. Required improvements include a 1/8th inch increase in tank thickness, electronically controlled, pneumatic brakes and rollover guards, or an even thicker shell without the braking and rollover modifications (see Table 2 in the PHMSA report for more details).

The time over which these changes must be made is tight. The DOT-111 cars are set to be phased out in two years (by 2017) for the most flammable liquids and in five years (by 2020) for less flammable varieties. The cost is estimated at $6B over the next twenty years with benefits estimated at $1.57-4.75B by the reduction of environmental and physical impacts.

These rules only apply to high-hazard flammable trains (HHFTs), defined as a train comprised of 20 or more carloads of a Class 3 flammable liquid, but that is no small subset. As oil and ethanol production in North America have boomed, so has rail traffic of these materials. Rail industry estimates put U.S. crude oil transport on Class I railroads at 10,800 carloads in 2009 and 400,000 carloads just four years later.

Economic impacts on the oil and gas industries and possibly your wallet are likely to follow. The cost to improve and replace their current fleet along with restrictions on speed, which are tiered based on the safety improvements in use, will not be entirely absorbed by industry. It is not likely there will be a decrease in demand for these materials, so transporting them safely should be a priority.


Image courtesy of North County Public Radio