Editorials

Our View: Delays on safer rail cars are unacceptable

Rail cars containing crude oil sit on railroad tracks in McClellan Park in North Highlands, just outside Sacramento, in March 2014. The U.S. Department of Transportation has three times delayed adoption of rules to make tank cars that carry crude and other volatile liquids safer.
Rail cars containing crude oil sit on railroad tracks in McClellan Park in North Highlands, just outside Sacramento, in March 2014. The U.S. Department of Transportation has three times delayed adoption of rules to make tank cars that carry crude and other volatile liquids safer. Sacramento Bee file

Highly volatile crude oil has begun moving by rail through our Valley, rolling down through Sacramento into Stockton, Modesto and Merced on its way to two refineries in Bakersfield. Unfortunately, the trains carrying that oil are no safer today than they were 18 months ago when a train derailed in Lac-Megantic, Canada, killing 47 people and wiping out half the town.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has three times delayed adoption of rules to make tank cars that carry crude and other volatile liquids (such as Bakken crude and ethanol) safer. The DOT apparently is weighing the need for safer cars against a more comprehensive approach that includes train speeds, rail maintenance, etc. While those things are important, the one specific thing that will make our communities safer are substantially better designed and built tank cars.

The DOT should adopt rules for those cars then set deadlines to replace every single tank car in America. Our elected representatives should insist on it.

We first wrote about the DOT-111 tank cars in August 2014. We worried that too many of the roughly 165,000 cars were deficient and that our first-responders wouldn’t have adequate notice that such volatile liquids were coming through our towns. Since then, the only change is that the tankers are now rolling through our towns.

Bakken crude from North Dakota has higher elements of butane, ethane and propane than other crudes, making it more explosive.

If a tank car is punctured, the crude can pool beneath, ignite then explode. One by one, following tank cars can explode. That’s happened in Lac-Megantic. There have been other, smaller and less destructive incidents since – Lynchburg, Va.; Aliceville, Ala.; Cherry Valley, Ill.; more in Pennsylvania, North Dakota, West Virginia and Canada. Dozens more.

But the Lac-Megantic tragedy had a profound impact on many in the rail industry, including Greg Saxton. He’s the chief engineer for Greenbrier Companies, which builds and repairs rail cars (including at a small facility in Modesto). Some of cars in Quebec were made by his company, so Saxton was allowed into Lac-Megantic as it smoldered. Echoing a story he told National Geographic in October, Saxton recalled the Catholic church: “There was always a funeral taking place,” he said, “morning, noon and night.”

He recognized that no one would want trains of crude rolling through their towns if such disasters continued. His part of the solution was to build a better tank car.

What emerged from the nation’s four major manufacturers was a new design, increasing the thickness of the steel to nine-sixteenths of an inch; adding jackets to protect against punctures; stronger valves; shields on either end; ceramic insulation and more.

A few of those elements were being built into cars after a 2011 incident. Prior to that, tank cars made to carry corn oil were being pressed into duty hauling volatiles. Saxton said the new cars are eight times safer than those pre-2011 cars and two times safer than the newest cars.

The industry is anxious to implement these changes, waiting only for the go-ahead from the U.S. DOT.

It’s been a long wait. Three times, adoption has been delayed. Despite the insistence of carmakers, politicians from Washington to Pennsylvania and even the National Transportation Safety Board – which has been pushing for adoption for nearly a year and even expressed its frustration with delays in writing – no action has been taken.

The DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said it will have a “final draft” rule ready “very soon.” But a year ago, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx gave carmakers, railroads and oil companies 30 days to agree on rules – then nothing happened. The DOT’s most recent delay came just two weeks ago.

Apparently the oil companies – which buy their tank cars – would prefer lighter-weight steel. They say better maintenance of tracks and lower speeds would do more to improve safety. While important, neither will go as far as making safer tankers.

Rep. Jeff Denham, as chair of the Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials subcommittee, could play a vital role. Tuesday, Denham will conduct a meeting with witnesses from The American Petroleum Institute, the Association of Railroads and others. They will argue first over what to implement then when, some insisting it’s impossible before 2020. But they won’t disagree about the need to make crude transport safer.

Greg Saxton will be there, too. Asked what he wants to happen next, Saxton was blunt: “We just need a decision. Twenty years is too long.”

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