Tank cars need new standards

Times Union | July 22, 2014 | Commentary by Greg Saxton

Last July, I had the opportunity to travel to a small, lakeside town in Quebec. Unfortunately, my visit was not recreational or pleasant, but spent exploring the ruins of a devastating accident in which an unattended freight train carrying crude oil derailed, resulting in an explosion of multiple tank cars.

As the chief engineer at The Greenbrier Companies, one of a small cohort of companies that builds tank cars, I had travelled to Lac-Megantic because several of our cars were involved in the accident. Our CEO, Bill Furman, dispatched me there immediately to understand what happened, to learn from it, and to ensure that Greenbrier did all it could to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

The Lac-Megantic derailment resulted in the loss of 47 lives and inflicted tremendous emotional and physical damage. It was grievous human error — the failure to properly operate, maintain and secure the train. But the accident also brought international attention to a question that many in our industry and the U.S. government have been grappling with for years: Are new regulations needed to make North American tank cars safer?

The so-called legacy DOT-111 tank cars involved in the accident were of a design that is well-known in our industry — first specified in the 1950s as general purpose tank cars. Their specifications have been the subject of considerable review and proposed improvements for over the past decade.

While the forces at work in the Lac-Megantic tragedy would have caused at least some ruptures in any tank car train, a more robustly designed car would almost certainly have lessened the ferocity of the explosions, possibly saving lives.

These risks have grown increasingly clear, as shipments of crude oil by rail have surged amid a renaissance in U.S. onshore oil production in places like North Dakota's Bakken oil field. Back in 2011, after lengthy study, industry and the Association of American Railroads petitioned the U.S. government to mandate a more robust tank design. When government action did not appear imminent, industry and the AAR voluntarily adopted the more robust standard — called CPC-1232 — for new tank cars ordered after Oct.1, 2011. Today, more than three years after the more robust CPC-1232 standard was proposed by this consensus group, DOT-111 specification remains the government-specified design in the U.S. The railroads are common carriers, and by law, they are required to move any car that properly "packages" commodities to DOT specifications.

Unfortunately, in the wake of Lac-Megantic and several other high-profile tank car derailments, it's clear regulators need to mandate a tank car with features that exceed even the CPC-1232. Prominent among these features are a 9/16 inch thick steel tank, a high capacity pressure relief valve to protect the tank from internal pressure resulting from a fire, 1/2 inch full-height head shields at both ends of the tank car, a bottom outlet valve handle that disengages so it does not unintentionally open during derailment, a ceramic thermal jacket around the tank shell and an outer steel jacket around the car to additionally protect against punctures and fire.

At Greenbrier, we call this the Tank Car of the Future. Others in our industry have also endorsed it. We could build this tank car in our facilities today.

The only thing holding us back is the government's inaction on proposed new tank car design regulations that have been pending for nearly 40 months now.

Why has the government not set new design standards, despite the clear need? Part of the answer has to do with opposition from some who refuse to acknowledge the benefits more robust tank cars offer in a derailment. Instead, they have argued that the real cause of accidents is defective rail lines, improper operating practices or human error.

These arguments should not be allowed to delay the introduction of more robust tank car designs. Regardless of the cause, we must do a better job controlling the results. About one and one half million gallons of crude oil spilled at Lac-Megantic, and there was no way for emergency responders to contain the ensuing fire. Any fire department would be overwhelmed in this situation. Putting fire fighters and other first responders in this sort of position is unfair and needless — especially when we have the tools to reduce the magnitude of these accidents.

Over the past year, I have met and corresponded with officials at the Department of Transportation who are in charge of writing the new rules and recognize that sturdier tank cars are needed and are genuinely committed to requiring them. Until they do, the risk of more tragedies remains unacceptably high.

A year after the Lac-Megantic accident, that's not something the American public should tolerate.

Greg Saxton is chief engineer for The Greenbrier Companies, a leading supplier of transportation equipment and services to the railroad industry.


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Tank cars need new standards
PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.