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New Oil Train Rules Elicit Different Concerns


The U.S. Department of Transportation Friday issued regulations aimed at improving safety for trains carrying crude oil and other hazardous materials.  The rules come following a number of oil train derailments in the U.S. and the deadly 2013 tragedy in Quebec.

The new regulations are in coordination with Canada and require new tank car standards along with the replacement of DOT-111 cars ranging from within three years, which covers most of the cars carrying crude oil, to longer. Environmental groups say the new rule leaves DOT-111 cars in service too long, a stance echoed by U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. The rules apply to so-called high-hazard flammable trains, defined as a continuous block of 20 or more tank cars loaded with a flammable liquid or 35 or more tank cars loaded with a flammable liquid dispersed through a train.  Democratic Hudson Valley Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney’s district includes municipalities on both sides of the Hudson River and near train tracks.

“Well this is an important step in the right direction, one I’ve been working on since, really, the minute I got sworn in,” says Maloney. “It gets the most dangerous materials in the most dangerous cars off the rails as quickly as possible.”

The retrofit timeline overall for tank cars varies, depending on make and specifications. The DOT rules require tank cars within five years to have an outer shell, a thermal lining and thicker steel walls to prevent them from rupturing in an accident.

“Look, it can’t happen fast enough. But if you look at the way they crafted the regulations, it is to get the most dangerous cars carrying the most material addressed first. And that’s important. And then it moves up the line to a broader number of cars carrying slightly less dangerous material and ultimately to things like braking systems and the rest,” Maloney says. “Look, I want it to happen yesterday. The fact is is the industry has been waiting for the specifications contained in these regulations so they begin manufacturing and deploying this equipment. And we all need to make sure it happens as quickly as possible. But I am satisfied that this is a good compromise as long as we get going on this, as long as we get these dangerous cars off the rails as fast as humanly possible.”

Ned Sullivan is president of Poughkeepsie-based environmental group Scenic Hudson. He applauds the phasing out of DOT-111 rail cars, but has a concern.

“We’re very concerned with the lengthy phase-in of the rules,  which are going to allow for the continued use of the DOT-111 rail cars for at least five years and, in some cases, as long as 10 years,” says Sullivan.

He says Scenic Hudson continues to review the regulations and is considering its options. Sullivan says it is too early to say what kind of response the group may be planning. The DOT rules also restrict trains carrying crude oil to 50 miles-per-hour in all areas and trains containing any tank cars not meeting the enhanced tank car standards to 40 miles-per-hour in high-threat urban areas.  Sullivan says this does not go far enough.

“The rules only require the lower speed limits in New York City and Buffalo, leaving communities all along the Hudson at great risk. Not even Albany is included,” says Sullivan. “In addition, we think that the lower speed limits should be imposed along natural resources of great significance, like the Hudson. The Hudson is an American Heritage River.”

Maloney says he is concerned about the speed limits.

“We’re working closely with DOT on this,” says Maloney. “And I have concerns about the speed limit rules being applied intelligently so we don’t disrupt other freight traffic but that we also protect sensitive areas like the Hudson Valley.”

Meanwhile, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers reacted to the new standards with a statement from Executive Vice President Brendan Williams saying the aggressive retrofit schedule is unrealistic and may be disruptive to transporting crude oil to markets across the country. The DOT regulations also mandate that most oil trains have ECP braking technology, electronically controlled pneumatic braking, by 2021. Such a system stops all of a train's cars at the same time, instead of sequentially. Ed Greenberg is spokesman for the Association of American Railroads.

“The freight rail industry welcomes the new tank car rule. We believe it enhances tank car design standards, something we’ve been calling for for many years, and it provides a certainty for not only the freight rail industry but shippers as well as other key stakeholders,” says Greenberg. “Our concern is with the portion of the rule that requires ECP brakes or imposes a 30-miles-per-hour speed limit. It’s our position that ECP brakes do not significantly improve safety. They have not met their reliability testing that’s required to operate in the type of environment in this country and in North America. And, at the end of the day, we feel, as an industry, that no justified safety case for ECP brakes has been made.”

The final rule is called "Enhanced Tank Car Standards and Operational Controls for High-Hazard Flammable Trains," and was issued by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration.

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