Following the disastrous derailment of a crude oil train in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Canadian government’s Transport Canada issued emergency regulations to improve safety on the countries’ railways.
The FRA issued an emergency order and safety advisory to help prevent trains carrying flammable liquids, including crude oil and ethanol, and operating on mainline tracks or sidings from moving unintentionally. Those new regulations are consistent with the emergency directive issued by Transport Canada that says trains with dangerous goods cannot be left unattended on a main track and such tank cars must be operated by at least a two person crew.
The new regulations were in direct response to the accident in Lac-Megantic that killed 47 people after an unmanned crude oil train jumped the track and rolled down a hill into the center of the city. In August, the railroad company that owned the train, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd., had its operating certificate suspended by the Canadian government because the company now lacks sufficient third-party liability insurance.
“Safety is our top priority,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “While we wait for the full investigation to conclude, the department is taking steps to help prevent a similar incident from occurring in the United States.”
The FRA’s emergency order builds upon the government’s existing safety program, which helped reduce rail accidents by 43 percent during the past decade and made 2012 the safest year in U.S. rail history.
“We appreciate the steps the FRA has taken to help advance the safety of moving hazardous materials via rail,” said Association of American Railroads (AAR) President and CEO Edward R. Hamberger. “Railroads are always looking for ways to make this nation’s rail network safer for our employees, our communities and the environment. Railroads will implement what has been issued by the FRA and examine what additional steps might be appropriate to ensure rail continues to be one of the safest ways to move hazardous materials.”
Railroads have become the primary source for shipping crude oil in North America because there currently aren’t enough pipelines for oil producers and refiners. “The Wall Street Journal” recently reported the volume of crude oil being transported on trains, trucks and barges has surpassed any point since the U.S. government started keeping track in 1981. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry light crude from the fracking of shale formations in the Bakken region and heavy crude pulled from the tar sands in Western Canada, is in limbo as President Barack Obama considers a veto of the project. Oil producers and refiners have turned to railways because rail cars carrying crude oil can quickly be filled and sent out — plus the process can’t be vetoed — while they wait for construction of the more than $40 billion in oil pipelines presently under way or planned.
AAR recently reported rail transport of petroleum and petroleum products was up 19.6 percent during the third week of August, compared to the same week last year. The amount of North American crude oil that has been transported by rail is already equal to the amount the Keystone XL pipeline would carry. Kinder Morgan canceled plans for a pipeline connecting Texas and California because refiners were happy with the amount of crude oil they were receiving by rail. Genesis Energy LP recently completed its engineering work to begin construction on a new crude oil train unloading facility in Raceland, La. The Raceland facility will be capable of unloading two unit trains a day and will have direct pipeline access to refineries in the Baton Rouge and St. James, La., areas.
Rail transportation for crude oil is more expensive than pipeline transport but allows more flexibility and is quicker than waiting for pipelines. Last year, the largest U.S. railroads shipped 233,000 carloads of crude oil, up from just 9,500 carloads as recently as 2008. That 2012 total could make more than 300 million gallons of gas, which is about what U.S. drivers use every day.
For more information, visit www.fra.dot.gov or call (800) 724-5995.