DOT Rule Promises Much Tougher Hazmat Rail Cars

A new DOT rule will "significantly reduce the hazard of hauling hazardous materials by rail," increasing by 500 percent on average the amount of energy a tank car must absorb before a catastrophic failure can occur, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary E. Peters said. The performance-based standard, published today, will require tank cars carrying Poison Inhalation Hazard (PIH) commodities such as chlorine and anhydrous ammonia to be equipped with puncture-resistant protection strong enough to prevent penetration at speeds of 25 mph for side impacts and 30 mph for head-on collisions -- more than double the speed for existing tank cars.

The agency expects the outer tank car shell and both head ends will be strengthened, the inner tank holding the hazmat cargo will be better shielded, and the space between the two will be designed with more energy absorption and protection capabilities. The proposal also sets a maximum speed limit of 50 mph for any train transporting a PIH tank car and a temporary speed restriction of 30 mph for PIH tank cars not meeting the puncture-resistance standard and traveling in "dark," or non-signaled, territory, until the rule is fully implemented or other safety measures are installed.

Finally, the proposed rule requires that some of the oldest PIH tank cars in use today be phased out on an accelerated schedule so they no longer carry PIH materials. Specifically, this addresses the concern that PIH tank cars manufactured prior to 1989 with non-normalized steel may not adequately resist the development of fractures that can lead to catastrophic failure. "When the opportunity to make major advances in safety is within our reach, we should not settle for incremental measures," said Joseph Boardman, federal railroad administrator.

In a February 2008 position paper titled "Hazmat Transport by Rail," the Association of American Railroads stated it favors reducing "the risks associated with highly-hazardous materials by developing safer tank cars and accelerating the development and use of safer substitutes for hazardous materials." The paper also says the association wants government to take it a step further, saying that "Railroad liability in case of a hazmat accident should be limited if railroads' common carrier obligation is retained, " which it says requires railroads to transport hazardous shipments whether they want to or not. AAR adds that, "railroads should be able to decide for themselves whether to transport, and at what price they are willing to transport, highly-hazardous materials." To address this "bet the company" risk obligation that railroads are forced to assume, AAR says Congress could:

  • create a statutory liability cap similar to the one for Amtrak (capped at $200 million per single accident), or
  • enact a Price-Anderson type solution, which "limits liability in incidents involving the release of nuclear materials and provides for a fund (to which owners of nuclear power plants contribute) to cover damages that exceed the limit."

Yesterday's rule was developed by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in consultation with the Federal Railroad Administration. DOT said it addresses issues arising from serious train hazmat accidents in Minot, N.D., Macdona, Texas, and Graniteville, S.C. The latter occurred Jan. 6, 2005, from an improperly positioned switch. This shifted a Norfolk Southern Railway Company freight train from a main line onto an industry track, where it struck an unoccupied, parked train, derailing some tank cars and causing one to leak chlorine gas. The train engineer and eight other people died as a result of chlorine gas inhalation and hundreds of people living in the vicinity were treated, with about 5,400 people within a one-mile radius of the site being evacuated for several days. Total damages exceeded $6.9 million.

For more information on the proposed standard, click here.

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