Rail safety improved since Lac-Megantic, but problems remain, experts tell Congress

A police officer walks among axle gear in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in this July 2013 file photo.
MATHIEU BELANGER | REUTERS
A police officer walks among axle gear in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in this July 2013 file photo.
Posted Feb. 26, 2014, at 6:52 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 26, 2014, at 7:24 p.m.

Tests of 58 samples of Bakken crude oil taken as part of a federal crackdown on U.S. oil transportation carriers revealed 11 potential violations of federal oil-transportation safety standards, a federal transportation official testified Wednesday.

On Wednesday, federal administrator Cynthia L. Quarterman spoke before a U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., called by U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, and several colleagues.

Quarterman, who oversees the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said she believed “that our comprehensive approach to rail safety is working, but we must continue to adapt our approach as we identify changing risks.

“Improvement in tank car integrity is one part of the ongoing effort to address the changes in the risks associated with transportation of hazardous materials,” she added.

Disclosure of the 11 potential violations came a day after federal transportation officials warned that fuel produced out of the Bakken, N.D., oil fields could be more flammable and explosion-prone than previously thought in the wake of a number of explosive derailments over the past year. The oil had been shown to crack rail tanker cars that it had been transported in. The hearing produced assurances from the Federal Railroad Administration to continue testing to ensure that the crude oil’s chemical content is labeled properly.

Michaud said that while rail safety has generally improved since 2003, he called for the hearing in response to the Lac-Megantic disaster and several other recent North American rail accidents. His Jan. 15 letter seeking Wednesday’s hearing mentioned nine train accidents in the U.S. and Canada, including Lac-Megantic. On July 6, an unmanned Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway oil-carrying train parked outside the Canadian village rolled downhill and exploded in the center of the town.

Michaud called the hearing helpful.

“Today’s hearing showed that federal officials are beginning to take action following the numerous train disasters over the last year,” he said in a statement released after the hearing. “While I am encouraged by recent steps that U.S. DOT and some in the industry have already taken, today’s hearing showed that much more needs to be done. Mandatory safety improvements must be made that apply to all railroads, not just the largest.”

Other incidents include a Jan. 7 explosive derailment of a Canadian National freight train carrying nine liquified petroleum and crude oil tankers and a Dec. 30 collision between a crude-oil train and derailed train cars exploded into several fireballs.

It was that explosion that caused the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to warn that Bakken crude might be mislabeled, Michaud said. In his letter, Michaud chided the committee for failing to reauthorize the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which funds the nation’s rail safety program.

During Wednesday’s three-hour hearing, Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo, petroleum industry leaders, and railroad industry executives and other officials pushed for more rail-safety funding and outlined some significant improvements in rail passenger and freight safety since the Lac-Megantic accident.

But Szabo said that the response from some railroads who had been involved in rail accidents since Lac-Megantic had been spotty, but federal officials had planned “to call them on it.”

“We have got more work to do,” said John Tolman, vice president and national legislative representative of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

“The technological ability to pull [oil] out of the ground is getting ahead of our ability to plan for [its shipment],” U.S. Rep. Michael E. Capuano, D-Mass., said during the hearing, which was transmitted live on the Internet.

Some of the potential solutions the industry is developing or implemented include: A manifest detailing freight train cargoes available on the Internet for emergency service responders to rail accidents; a push to replace the DOT-111 rail car, flaws in which some critics say contributed to the Lac Megantic disaster; and risk-based railroad route analysis by railroads that could move hazardous rail traffic away from population centers.

“In their testimony, experts today reaffirmed what we already knew — positive train control will save lives, flawed tank cars should be retrofitted or phased out as soon as possible and multiple person train crews enhance safety,” Michaud said.

Michaud has introduced the Safe Freight Act, which would require that all freight trains in operation have at least two crew members on board.

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