Federal Regulators Propose Phase-Out of Dangerous Tank Cars

Proposed DOT rules come as more oil rides the rails through Northwest Montana

By Justin Franz

 Following a year of high-profile rail derailments involving crude oil, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced last week a gamut of new regulations in hopes of preventing more explosive accidents.

The proposed rules, which include a two-year phase-out of the DOT 111 tank car, come as more crude oil is riding the rails through Northwest Montana, including along Glacier National Park’s southern boundary and near downtown Whitefish. Data from BNSF Railway released by the state of Montana earlier this summer shows that during the first full week of June, a dozen loaded oil trains rolled through the area; that number is likely to grow in the coming years as North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields continue to boom. 

“Safety is our top priority, which is why I’ve worked aggressively to improve the safe transport of crude oil and other hazardous materials since my first week in office,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on July 23. “While we have made unprecedented progress though voluntary agreements and emergency orders, today’s proposal represents our most significant progress yet in developing and enforcing new rules to ensure that all flammable liquids, including Bakken crude and ethanol, are transported safely.”

Besides phasing out the DOT 111 tank car, which was at the center of last year’s deadly oil train wreck in Quebec, the DOT proposed calling any train with 20 or more tank cars carrying crude a “high-hazard flammable train;” improving the classification and testing of crude oil carried by rail; requiring railroad companies to conduct analysis to find the best and safest routes for oil trains; informing first responders of how many oil trains are traveling through specific areas; reducing speeds to a maximum 40 miles per hour, unless the train has specialized breaks; enhancing breaking systems on all tank cars; and having new tank cars built to tougher standards after October 2015, including using thicker steel, protection plates and better breaks.

The announcement of the proposed rules opened a 60-day comment period and could be implemented after that.

When reached for comment, BNSF spokesperson Matthew Jones directed the Beacon to comments made by Association of American Railroads President and CEO Edward R. Hamberger. Although the association noted it had not yet reviewed the entire list of proposed rules, it appeared supportive of the steps being made.

“This long-anticipated rulemaking from the DOT provides a much-needed pathway for enhancing the safe movement of flammable liquids in the United States,” Hamberger said in a prepared statement. “Railroads are playing a critical role in our country’s progress towards energy independence, moving more energy products like crude oil and ethanol than ever before.”

In 2008, Class 1 railroad companies, which include the largest railroad operators in North America, moved just 9,500 carloads of crude oil. Five years later, in 2013, the industry moved 400,000 carloads, due in large part to the Bakken.

The movement of crude oil-by-rail had gone relatively unnoticed until the night of July 6, 2013, when a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, leveling part of the downtown area and killing 47 people. The derailment was the first in a series of high-profile wrecks, including one near Casselton, North Dakota. Last week, BNSF made news in the Seattle area when four cars on a loaded oil train went off the track. No one was injured and no oil was spilled in that incident.

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