Rail safety recommendations offered

2014-01-23T14:11:00Z Rail safety recommendations offeredBy NICK SMITH | Bismarck Tribune Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK, N.D. _ North Dakota’s congressional delegation is urging action on recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board meant to reduce the risk of rail accidents.

In releasing the recommendations Thursday, U.S. and Canadian accident investigators warned that a “major loss of life” could result from an accident involving the increasing use of trains to transport large amounts of crude oil.

The board forwarded three recommendations to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration.

The first calls for better route planning for rail lines shipping hazardous materials, to avoid populated and environmentally sensitive areas.

Investigators also recommend requiring shippers and rail lines to have plans for responding to a spill or incident. And they call for proper classification of hazardous materials with a safety and security plan in place for all shipments.

Thursday recommendations were a joint effort of the NTSB and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada in response to the July 2013 derailment and explosion in Quebec that killed 47 people in the town of Lac-Megantic.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx met with oil and railroad executives last week, pressing them to come up with voluntary changes in the way oil is transported to increase safety. He asked industry officials to report back to him within 30 days.

Edward Hamberger, president of the Association of American Railroads, reaffirmed the freight rail industry’s commitment to moving oil safely, in a speech Thursday to energy and financial industry executives.

Jack Koraleski, CEO of Union Pacific, the nation's largest freight railroad, told The Associated Press the railroad industry already plans to begin treating crude oil like a toxic chemical and carefully plan out the safest routes possible using existing federal rules for the most hazardous chemicals. He said the decision was a result of the meeting with Foxx.

“We're going to route all crude oil through that same process,” he said. “By any stretch of the imagination, our performance in crude oil is incredibly safe. But there are some things we can do to make it safer.”

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the NTSB has put out “commonsense recommendations.”

Concerns over safety in light of rapidly expanding rail shipping of crude oil have grown even more prevalent following a November derailment in rural Alabama and a fiery wreck near Casselton last month.

Hoeven said the recommendations are a step in the right direction.

Tanker car standards also are an issue, he said. The tanker cars in the Casselton and Lac-Megantic wrecks were of the DOT-111 model, a model that has on numerous occasions been cited as being more susceptible to rupturing in accidents.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., welcomed the recommendations in a statement. She said they’re in line with what she and the state’s delegation have been pushing for.

“NTSB's findings … help us as we work to look at safety concerns brought to light by the derailment in Casselton, determine what happened in that accident, and aim to prevent any future derailments," Heitkamp said.

Public safety is paramount and rail safety is a national issue, said Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.

“There is no one in the supply chain that benefits from derailments or spills or explosions,” Cramer said.

It’s in the industry’s best interest to remain proactive and reduce the risk of accidents like in Casselton or Lac-Megantic from happening again, he said.

“If you lose public confidence, you could lose public support,” Cramer said.

North Dakota Pipeline Authority figures show oil exports by rail increased from about 100,000 barrels per day in October 2010 to nearly 780,000 barrels per day this past November.

The NTSB said crude oil shipments by rail increased by more than 400 percent since 2005. Some oil trains are more than 100 cars long.

The railroad association said early data incidate the number of rail carloads of crude topped 400,000 last year.

Jeff Zent, a spokesman for Gov. Jack Dalrymple, said the governor supports the recommendations and the delegation’s push for them.

“These recommendations are one of a number of approaches that should be taken to improve rail safety,” Zent said.

The governor also believes a top priority is expediting new rules on rail tanker car standards so the nation’s tanker car fleet can continue to be upgraded, Zent said.

NTSB public affairs officer Eric Weiss said the recommendations were a long time in the making following a thorough study of recent derailments. Study of the safety of tanker cars dates back at least to a deadly June 2009 derailment near Rockford, Ill., he said.

Weiss said the hope is that federal agencies quickly enact the recommendations.

“We have a good track record of agencies and organizations taking heed,” Weiss said. “We don’t make recommendations lightly.”

“The large-scale shipments of crude oil by rail simply didn’t exist 10 years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up with this new reality,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said in a statement. “While this energy boom is good for business, the people and the environment along rail corridors must be protected from harm.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Reach Nick Smith at 701-250-8255 or 701-223-8482 or at nick.smith@bismarcktribune.com.

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