Revised Oil-Train Safety Rule Said to Delay Upgrade Deadline

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The Obama administration revised its proposal to prevent oil trains from catching fire in derailments, giving companies more time to upgrade their fleets but sticking with a requirement that new tank cars have thicker walls and better brakes.

The changes, described by three people familiar with the proposal who asked not to be identified because the plan has not been made public, are in proposed regulations the U.S. Transportation Department sent to the White House last week for review prior to being released.

The administration is revising safety standards after a series of oil-train accidents, including a 2013 disaster in Canada that killed 47 people when a runaway train derailed and blew up. Earlier this month a train carrying ethanol derailed and caught fire outside of Dubuque, Iowa. No one was hurt.

Companies that own tank cars opposed the aggressive schedule for modifying cars in the DOT’s July draft, saying it would have cost billions of dollars and could slow oil production. That plan gave companies two years to retrofit cars hauling the most volatile crude oil, including from North Dakota’s booming Bakken field.

Railroads and oil companies fought the brake requirement and proposed a standard for the steel walls that was thinner than suggested by the agency.

‘Too Long’

Karen Darch, the mayor of the Chicago suburb of Barrington, Illinois, and an advocate for safer cars, said she was encouraged that the rules included stronger tank cars and upgraded brakes. She disagreed with adding years to the retrofit deadline.

“Taking more time on something that’s already taken too long is problematic,” Darch said Thursday in a phone interview.

Officials in the President Barack Obama’s Office of Management and Budget could change the proposal before the final version is released, probably in May. Darius Kirkwood, a spokesman at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the Transportation Department unit that wrote the rule, said he couldn’t comment on a proposed rule.

“The department has and will continue to put a premium on getting this critical rule done as quickly as possible, but we’ve always committed ourselves to getting it done right,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said this month in a statement about the timing of the safety rule.

Rolling Deadlines

The current proposal would require companies to first upgrade tank cars known as DOT-111s, which safety investigators have said are prone to puncture in rail accidents, according to one of the people. Cars with an extra jacket of protection would remain in use longer before undergoing modifications, according to one of the people.

A newer model known as the CPC-1232, which the industry in 2011 voluntarily agreed to build in response to safety concerns, would have a later deadline than the DOT-111s for modification or replacement, three people said.

The CPC-1232s have more protection at the ends of the cars and than the DOT-111s and a reinforced top fitting.

The draft rule also would require that new tank cars be built with steel shells that are 9/16th of an inch thick, the people said. The walls of the current cars, both DOT-111s and CPC-1232s, are 7/16th of an inch thick.

A joint proposal from the American Petroleum Institute and the Association of American Railroads argued to set the tank-car shell thickness at half an inch, or 8/16ths.

Company Lobbying

Railroads and oil companies also lobbied against a proposal that the trains have electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, which are designed to stop all rolling cars at a same time.

The Association of American Railroads in June told Transportation Department officials that the electronic brakes would cost as much as $15,000 for each car and have only a minimal safety impact.

Trains often haul 100 or more tank cars filled with crude. These trains have increasingly been used to haul crude as oil production has boomed in places, like North Dakota, that don’t have enough pipelines.

Rail shipments of oil surged to 408,000 car loads last year from 11,000 in 2009.

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