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Canada Acts while U.S. Lags on Rail Oil Tank Car Safety

Transport Canada jumped past U.S. DOT on April 23 by taking decisive action on "exploding" oil tank cars that are traveling throughout North America due largely to an insufficient oil pipeline network. Within three years, the older cars must go.
April 25, 2014, 8am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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"In response to a deadly train derailment last summer, the Canadian government Wednesday ordered the country’s railroads to phase out tens of thousands of older, puncture-prone tank cars from crude oil transportation within three years," writes McClatchy's Curtis Tate. 

Though Transport Canada and its U.S. equivalent, the Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT)  have been working together to address widespread concerns about the safety of moving large quantities of crude oil and ethanol in trains, the announcement puts Canada a step ahead.

DOT's two regulators in charge, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), have established voluntary standards and have for the first time begun enforcing existing standards. See FRA's "Safety Action Plan for Hazardous Materials Safety" for a chronological listing of actions taken. 

Canada's action to phase out the DOT-111 tank car (see Tate's photo of one in an Amtrak station) is significant as "both countries historically have harmonized their regulation of rail transportation because of the seamless nature of North America’s rail system," he writes. This action effectively ends that harmony, particularly for 5,000 DOT-111 rail cars made of inferior steel that will be banned in Canada from carrying crude oil and ethanol within 30 days, yet can continue to operate south of their border.

So what's holding up action in the USA?

Judy Woodruff of the PBS NewsHour asked that of National Transportation Safety Board chairman Deborah Hersman on the Wednesday show. The NTSB, "an independent Federal agency charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident in the U.S. and significant accidents in other modes of transportation-railroad, highway, marine and pipeline" can only make recommendations to the regulators who make them.

Hersman attributes the problem to the "different interests" involved.

We heard from the petroleum industry. We also heard from the rail industry, and we heard from the people who manufacture and own the tank cars. Everybody has got to work together to try to solve this problem. 

They don't. The rail industry is on-board with tougher tank car regulations. The hold-up appears to be with the oil industry and the car manufacturers. A tight time-line to phase-out the older cars might mean less oil shipped due to a lack of safe tanker cars. But should public safety be subordinate to economics? It would be good to end with the announcement from Canadian Transport Minister Lisa Raitt.

“I am committed to making our country a model of world class safety,” said in a statement. “The measures I am announcing today improve the safety of the railway and transportation of dangerous goods systems from coast to coast to coast.”

Unfortunately, they don't improve them in the United States that needs them just as much.

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Published on Thursday, April 24, 2014 in The Olympian
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