DOT Proposes Crude-by-Rail Safety Changes

Earlier today, the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) released two proposals designed to enhance the safety of the transportation of crude by rail. The first, short proposal seeks comments on a potential rulemaking which would increase the oil-spill planning required for crude by rail transport. The second, more lengthy proposal seeks comments on a suite of enhancements intended to enhance the safety of rail transportation itself.

The first, oil-spill planning notice results from current regulatory language that only requires spill response planning for trains carrying oil in packages greater than 42,000 gallons. Since most, if not all, oil is currently being transported in tank cars which hold less than 42,000 gallons, there is little mandatory applicability of the rule. PHMSA is therefore planning to revise that threshold and is seeking comment regarding what quantities should trigger spill response planning requirements.

The second, railcar safety proposal has been expected for some time, as PHMSA issued an advanced notice of the proposal on September 5, 2013. Today's proposal includes a suite of enhancements, including

  1. new operational requirements for certain trains transporting a large volume of Class 3 flammable liquids;
  2. improvements in tank car standards; and
  3. revision of the general requirements for offerors to ensure proper classification and characterization of crude oil and other mined gases and liquids.

PHMSA Seeks Comments

Unlike many instances where an agency proposes a standard and seeks input on that standard, in a couple of critical instances, PHMSA is actually seeking comment on several potential standards. For example, with regard to operational limits, PHMSA is seeking comments on three options for "high hazard flammable trains" (HHFTs - those with more than 20 cars of crude oil or other Class 3 flammable liquids) with non-conforming railcars (HHFTs with conforming cars are limited to 50 mph):

  1. a 40 mph speed limit in all areas,
  2. a 40-mph limit for HHFTs in areas with more than 100,000 people; or
  3. a 40-mph limit for HHFTs in "high threat urban areas" (which is a Department of Homeland Security term).

Similarly, PHMSA is seeking input on several potential options for a new, more robust tank car for transporting crude oil. These include:

  1. a PHMSA and FRA-designed tank car, with 9/16-inch steel walls, full height ½-inch think head shield and more;
  2. cars based on the Association of American Railroad's (AAR's) proposed new (2014) tank car standard; and
  3. cars based on (and enhanced from) the current AAR standard.

The chosen standard would be implemented over a two- to five-year period. PHMSA is also seeking comment on a number of other significant elements of the rulemaking, including whether there are any relatively lower hazard, lower risk flammable liquids that could potentially be exempt from the enhanced car standards for HHFT.

With regard to testing and classification, PHMSA is proposing that all offerors and shippers of crude have a written sampling and testing program for all mined gases and liquids, such as crude oil, which it certifies is in place and documents as to its implementation.

The proposal contains several other significant elements, including rail routing risk assessments, notification to state emergency response commissions of certain shipments, and requirements for enhanced braking systems.

Photo credit: davebloggs007 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)