The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

New Rail Rules Do Little to Prevent Accidents

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted May 5, 2015

During months of public discussion of improving the safety of transporting crude oil by rail, we’ve stressed the need to let science and fact-based analysis guide development of a holistic strategy that would have the best chance of producing tangible safety benefits.

Unfortunately, new rules published last week by the Transportation Department – featuring requirements for sturdier tank cars and electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes – are a mixed bag that will do little to prevent derailments in the first place.

Instead of working to ensure the integrity of the tracks and to eliminate human error as much as possible, both of which would help prevent accidents from occurring, it seems federal officials at times opted for the optics of appearing to make progress. In the case of the ECP brakes, it’s a technology that experts say doesn’t significantly improve safety – which is the goal. To add to the 99.99 percent safety record in the transport of hazardous materials by rail, a more comprehensive approach that focuses more attention on prevention is needed.

On the plus side, four years after the oil and natural gas industry asked regulators to upgrade their standards for tank car design, the release of the rule does provide regulatory certainty for industry on design of future tank cars – although it’s questionable whether railcar manufacturers have enough shop capacity to complete upgrading of the fleet by the required deadlines. 

What’s not in question is that requiring ECP brakes will have little impact on safety while making it even harder for manufacturers to meet the retrofit deadlines. American Association of Railroads President and CEO Edward R. Hamberger:

“First and foremost, the DOT has no substantial evidence to support a safety justification for mandating ECP brakes, which will not prevent accidents. The DOT couldn’t make a safety case for ECP but forged ahead anyhow. This is an imprudent decision made without supporting data or analysis. I have a hard time believing the determination to impose ECP brakes is anything but a rash rush to judgment.”

Hamberger questioned basing a regulation on “negligible” ECP simulation analysis and said the process fell short of the administration’s promises on developing solutions:

“President Obama pledged to advance common-sense regulations that are based on the best available science, promote predictability and reduce uncertainty. ECP brakes meet none of these. … DOT’s study is flawed and ECP brakes do not significantly improve safety and are unreliable. No justified safety case for ECP brakes has ever been made.”

More Hamberger:

“Attention and resources should be allocated to addressing the underlying causes of rail accidents and brakes simply aren’t on that list. Unjustified regulations such as this trigger a reallocation of investments that will not generate the kind of safety benefits the industry and the public expects.”

Railway Supply Institute (RSI) President Tom Simpson said the industry supply association’s Committee on Tank Cars provided federal officials “extensive” information casting doubt on the safety value of ECP brakes:

“We are disappointed that DOT chose to require ECP braking systems as part of the new tank car standards. RSI-CTC provided extensive information and analysis to officials in the U.S. regarding the challenges of requiring ECP brakes to rail tank cars. That data and analysis show that ECP brakes do not achieve significant safety advantages in derailment scenarios as compared to alternative braking systems which are already being used and which present far fewer technical and logistical challenges than ECP brakes.”

Simpson told the Wall Street Journal there are only two U.S. suppliers of ECP brakes and that modification of 125,000 tank cars would be an “unnecessary expenditure” because existing braking systems work.

This is a strong concern because, as Hamberger notes, the public’s expectations for improved safety are high. API President and CEO Jack Gerard:

“As we review these rules, the key question is whether science and data show each change will make a meaningful improvement to safety. A thoughtful, comprehensive and data-driven safety approach is critical to … reach our goal of zero accidents. Tank cars and the industry’s work to educate first responders are two elements of the bigger picture. Accident investigations consistently show that more must also be done to prevent derailments by enhancing the inspection and maintenance of train tracks, axles and other railroad equipment.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.