New Rules Target Crude Train Safety

Jul 24, 2014

An oil train waits to be loaded at the Upton Logistics Center, in Upton, WY.
Credit Stephanie Joyce / WPM

The federal government has released new rules for trains transporting crude oil. They come in response to a number of dramatic crude train derailments over the last year, including one that destroyed the town of Lac Megantic, Quebec. 

The draft rules make a number of recommendations, the biggest of which is phasing out a type of tank car called DOT-111s over the next two years. Those cars have been disparagingly called "Coke cans" because they're thin-walled and often rip open in derailments, but they're the most common way to transport crude oil by rail.

According to the American Railroad Association, roughly 90,000 of them are currently used to carry flammable materials like crude oil and ethanol. Eric de Place, policy director for the Sightline Institute, a Seattle think-tank, says while phasing out the 111s is the right policy move, the fact that the rule doesn’t specify what should replace them is a problem. "I read this and I see a bunch of 'if, if, if' and 'we’ll get back to you in the future,'" he says.

The rules give three options for potential new tank car designs. Old tank cars would be able to continue operating for five years if they weren’t replaced, but would have operating restrictions placed on them.

Anthony Hatch, an independent rail consultant, says the government is trying to solve the problem without a good understanding of its root cause.

"When something unusual happens, they do unusual things, and those unusual things aren’t always helpful, they’re often so they can be perceived as 'doing something,'" Hatch says. "That should be a cold comfort."

While he's not opposed to phasing out the DOT-111s, Hatch says he's not sure that's the biggest issue. He says stripping the volatile gases out of the crude oil may ultimately prove to be much more important -- and that's not mentioned at all in the rule.

The rules now go to a 60-day public comment period.