On August 27/28, 2013, representatives from the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) met with stakeholders to initiate a comprehensive review of operational factors that affect the safety of the transportation of hazardous materials by railway.
“We know we can’t wait. The volume of crude oil moving by rail has quadrupled in less than a decade,” said Cynthia Quarterman, PHMSA Administrator. “As greater quantities of HAZMAT are transported by rail, the risks increase, and we have to make sure our regulations and practices keep pace with the market and new technology. We have to identify gaps and close them.”
The late August meeting was used to pinpoint potential reforms, including tougher regulations, and railroad and personnel controls of trains carrying large volumes of crude oil, ethanol and other hazardous cargo. According to the Oil and Gas Financial Journal, total petroleum-based shipments increased 46% from 2011 to 2012. Railroads are used to haul petroleum-based products from locations that such as North Dakota’s Bakken shale fields, where pipelines are lacking. Because of the statistics and a recent accident, there is a heightened awareness for new inspections and oil samplings. This effort, dubbed the “Bakken blitz” by some regulators puts a spotlight on concerns about improper classification of crude oil hazards, the use of unsuitable or unsafe tank cars, security issues, and best practices.
The review comes on the heels of the July 6th Lac-Megantic, Quebec railcar disaster that killed 47 people, forced evacuation of 2,000, and destroyed the town center. The incident was sparked when an unmanned train with a boxcar and 63 loaded tank cars derailed and exploded in the core of town.
FRA’s inspection data since January 2010 shows significant non-compliance with FRA’s securement regulations, 49 CFR 232.103(n), with nearly 4,950 recorded defects in that time. Although railcar accidents have an overall downward trend, accidents associated with “securement” problems rose 31% in the last fiscal year. This data, coupled with the significant increase in hazardous crude by rail transportation, reveals key gaps in railroad and regulatory efforts.
In early August, the FRA and PHMSA issued emergency orders on securing unattended and managing stationary trains. While train accidents involving hazardous materials are caused by a variety of factors, nearly one-half of all accidents are related to railroad human factors or equipment defects. Under current DOT regulations, all freight railroads are required to develop and implement risk assessments and security plans in order to transport any hazardous material, including a plan to prevent unauthorized access in rail yards, facilities and trains carrying hazardous materials. The emergency order highlights the regulation and requires the following:
- Railroads are prohibited from leaving trains or vehicles that are transporting hazardous materials unattended unless the railroad complies with a plan that identifies the specific locations and circumstances for which it is safe and suitable for leaving such trains or vehicles unattended.
- Railroads must develop specific processes for employees responsible for securing any unattended train or vehicles transporting hazardous materials.
- Railroads must review, verify, and adjust, as necessary, existing requirements and instructions related to the number of hand brakes to be set on unattended trains and vehicles and that railroads review and adjust, as necessary, the procedures for verifying that the number of hand brakes is sufficient to hold the train or vehicle with the air brakes released.
- Railroads must implement operating rules and practices requiring the job briefing of securement among crewmembers and other involved railroad employees before engaging in any job that will impact or require the securement of any train or vehicle in the course of the work being performed.
- Railroads must develop procedures to ensure that a qualified railroad employee inspects all equipment that any emergency responder has been on, under, or between for proper securement before the rail equipment or train is left unattended.