What Washington Can Do to Prevent Train Tragedies | Commentary

A lot has been written in this newspaper about how little Congress is accomplishing this summer. But there is something important Washington could do before the August recess without any congressional action — demand safer standards for hauling crude oil.

The need for such standards is more urgent than ever, as we mark the one-year anniversary this month of the Lac-Mégantic train derailment in Canada. The accident — in which a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded — resulted in the loss of 47 human lives and inflicted tremendous emotional and physical damage. It has also raised concerns in Congress and in many lawmakers’ districts about the significant increase in the movement of oil through U.S. communities — and the fact that much of the oil is transported in older train tank cars that do not have the latest safety technologies.

Unfortunately, the Department of Transportation has yet to mandate design improvements that would enhance the safety of tank cars. As a result, the industry continues to rely on so-called legacy DOT-111 tank cars to handle the surge of oil being produced in places like North Dakota’s Bakken oil field.

The DOT’s inaction has recently caused lawmakers to consider taking matters into their own hands; last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved proposed legislation to mandate new tank car designs by Oct. 1. But the need for such improvements has been evident for years. As far back as 2011 and after lengthy study, industry and the American Association of Railroads petitioned the U.S. government to mandate a more robust tank design with thicker steel shells, and protection for the top, bottom and both ends of the tank car. When government action did not appear imminent, industry and the AAR voluntarily adopted the more robust standard — called CPC-1232 — for new tank cars ordered after Oct. 1, 2011.

Today, more than three years after the more robust CPC-1232 standard was proposed by this consensus group, DOT-111 specification remains the government-specified design in the United States. The railroads are common carriers and by law, they are required to move any car that properly “packages” commodities to DOT specifications.

In the wake of Lac-Mégantic and several other high-profile tank car derailments, it has become clear regulators need to mandate a tank car with features that exceed even the CPC-1232. Prominent among the features of a more robust tank car are a 9/16 inch thick steel tank, a high capacity pressure relief valve to protect the tank from internal pressure resulting from a fire, 1/2 inch full-height head shields at both ends of the tank car, a bottom outlet valve handle that disengages so it does not unintentionally open during derailment, a ceramic thermal jacket around the tank shell and an outer steel jacket around the car to additionally protect against punctures and fire.

At The Greenbrier Companies, one of a small cohort of companies that builds tank cars, we call this the Tank Car of the Future. Others in our industry have endorsed it as well. The design is known, materials are available, and we could build this tank car in our facilities today. The only thing holding us back is the government’s inaction on proposed new tank car design regulations that have been pending for nearly 40 months now.

Why has the government not set new design standards, given all the evidence such standards are needed? Part of the answer has to do with opposition from some who refuse to acknowledge the benefits more robust tank cars offer in a derailment. Instead, they have argued that the real cause of accidents is defective rail lines, improper operating practices or human error.

These arguments should not be allowed to delay the introduction of more robust tank car designs. Regardless of the causes of derailments, we can and must do a better job controlling the results. About one and one half million gallons of crude oil spilled at Lac-Mégantic, and there was no way for emergency responders to contain the ensuing fire. They were overwhelmed by a flaming ocean of crude oil. Any fire department would be overwhelmed, as there is simply no time to clear the area of people and position equipment and fire fighters. Putting fire fighters and other first responders in this sort of position is unfair and needless — especially when we as an industry have the tools to reduce the magnitude of these accidents.

Over the past year, I have met and corresponded with officials at the Department of Transportation who are in charge of writing the new rules governing tank car design. The officials I have met recognize that sturdier tank cars are needed and are genuinely committed to requiring them. Until they do, the risk of more tragedies remains unacceptably high. A year after the Lac-Mégantic accident, that’s not something the American public should tolerate.

Greg Saxton is chief engineer for The Greenbrier Companies, a leading supplier of transportation equipment and services to the railroad industry.