Boom in oil trains represents opportunity for rail car manufacturers

Posted on 7 Apr 2015 by Tim Brown
Campaigners rally in Seattle against oil trains travelling underneath the city - image courtesy of Alex Garland via Flickr.
Campaigners rally in Seattle against oil trains travelling underneath the city - image courtesy of Alex Garland via Flickr.

Following a spate of recent rail disasters involving trains carrying crude oil, The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) yesterday issued four urgent recommendations calling for the introduction of more robust and fire-resistant rail cars.

The recommendations come following serious accidents involving crude carrying trains in West Virginia last month and another in Illinois in early March, which both resulted in large fires.

And there were a number of other significant derailments of oil trains in the US and Canada.

Indeed more oil was spilled from oil trains in the US in 2014 than in the previous 38 years combined. That is due to a dramatic increase in the number of rail cars carrying crude oil.

350 Seattle & Backbone Campaign have called for a stop to all Oil by rail transport and in 2013 used Guerrilla Light Projection and other creative tactics to throw a spotlight on the issue - image courtesy of Backbone Campaign via Flickr.
350 Seattle & Backbone Campaign have called for a stop to all Oil by rail transport and in 2013 used Guerrilla Light Projection and other creative tactics to throw a spotlight on the issue – image courtesy of Backbone Campaign via Flickr.

Crude by rail has taken off in the last six years, increasing from around 9,500 car loads in 2008 to almost 500,000 carloads in 2014, according to the Association of American Railroads.

In its recommendations, the NTSB called for an aggressive schedule of replacing or retrofitting the current oil trains rail car fleet to more safely carry flammable liquids such as crude oil or ethanol. The NTSB said the train cars should be fitted with better thermal protection against heat from fires, such as through a ceramic thermal blanket, and increased capacity pressure relief devices.

“We can’t wait a decade for safer rail cars,” said NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart. “Crude oil rail traffic is increasing exponentially. That is why this issue is on our Most Wanted List of Safety Improvements. The industry needs to make this issue a priority and expedite the safety enhancements, otherwise, we continue to put our communities at risk.”

The Board said the current fleet of DOT-111 tank cars rupture too quickly when exposed to a pool fire caused by a derailment or other accident with resulting spillage and ignition. And based on a series of accidents the Board has investigated in recent months, performance of the industry’s enhanced rail car, the CPC-1232, is not satisfactory under these conditions.

“The NTSB concludes that the thermal performance and pressure relief capacity of bare steel tank cars that conform to current federal and industry requirements is insufficient to prevent tank failures from pool fire thermal exposure and the resulting overpressurization,” said the letter that included the recommendations from the Board to acting administrator Timothy P. Butters of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

The Board also called for swiftness in changing the fleet of oil trains and called for intermediate deadlines and transparent reporting to ensure the tank car fleet is being upgraded as quickly as possible.

At the end of March a group of Democratic senators also introduced the Crude-By-Rail Safety Act in an effort to improve the safety of oil trains in the US.

The Act will direct the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to bar the use of older, riskier types of tankers and ask it to set standards for the volatility of gases in tank cars, meaning they won’t explode as easily. The legislation would also set standards for new tankers, requiring thicker shells, thermal protection and pressure relief valves.

Concern about the safety of tankers is on the rise. A recent federal government report predicted an average of 10 oil train derailments a year and $4.5bn in damage over the next two decades.