The U.S. Department of Transportation has expanded regulation of oil trains on the fast track, with the possibility new rules could be in place by early 2015.
The railroads and oil shippers should get on board, because this train will roll without them.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx unveiled a preliminary but comprehensive – 200 pages – set of rules that addresses many of the concerns raised after several accidents, including the derailment and explosion last year in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47 and destroyed much of the downtown.
Wednesday, a train derailed in Seattle. Three tank cars containing the same volatile crude that exploded in Quebec remained upright, and none spilled. With cleanup underway, the rest of the train proceeded to Anacortes, where oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oilfield is becoming an increasingly important refinery feedstock. Refinery expansion and proposed facilities for transferring oil to barges could add 11 oil trains per day to the two or three now passing through downtown Spokane.
Three years ago, there were none, and the sudden appearance of the long strings of black tank cars has government authorities at all levels running to catch up. Because the U.S. Constitution reserves control of interstate commerce to the federal government, the states have to focus more on response to accidents, not their prevention.
Among the proposed requirements is advanced notification of public safety agencies when trains are in the area. The railroads are fulfilling that responsibility already, but BNSF Railway is sideways with Washington officials about whether that information should be public.
The DOT also would require tanks be made of thicker steel, the valves be better protected and brakes be improved. All this to be done in two years, not the three the industry asked for just two weeks ago.
Train speed is also a major issue. Speed through cities might be limited to 30 mph, and speeds elsewhere capped at 50 mph. Trains with oil less volatile than Bakken crude might be allowed higher speeds. The train that derailed in Seattle was going only 5 mph, and on improved track at that.
Limits as low as 20 mph have been suggested, but railroad officials say that would snarl train traffic.
The rules also would address ethanol tank cars, which would have to be upgraded by 2018.
Until they approached the DOT two weeks ago with their joint proposal for upgrading oil trains, the railroad and oil industries had been trying to hand responsibility for the upgrades to each other. Wednesday, the railroads reacted more positively to the rules than did the crude producers.
If they stay united, the reforms might be sidetracked until well into 2015. Really, the only constraint should be the capacity of tank car manufacturers to make or upgrade new rolling stock.
Rulemaking like this can be frustratingly slow. With the risk to public safety so obvious, the DOT has so far moved with admirable speed to prevent a disaster before one happens.