New TRB Study Recommends Better Inspection of Rail Lines Carrying Crude Oil

October 13, 2017

A new study produced by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine called for more frequent and comprehensive inspections of railroad routes that carry petroleum products, among many other recommendations.

The study was released on October 11 and was produced by the TRB Committee for Study of Domestic Transportation of Petroleum, Natural Gas, and Ethanol. The study examined the transportation of such products by three different modes (pipeline, maritime, and rail) but noted that the first two modes have been transporting these products for a century or more, and as such have extremely well-tested and evolved safety procedures for such transportation. But the fracking and shale expansion of petroleum production has resulted in significant oil and gas production in places where there isn’t sufficient pipeline capacity and that are far water, leaving the railroads to carry the cargo and develop safety procedures as they went along.

Two statistics from the report can summarize the change:

  • In 2005, North Dakota produced 98 thousand barrels of oil per day. In 2015, that number had jumped to 1.177 million barrels per day – a twelvefold increase.
  • “During 2010 and 2011, the nation’s freight railroads had been experiencing steady increases in crude oil traffic. By 2012, when the pipeline bottlenecks were at their peak, the number of carloads of crude oil was nearly 10 times higher than in 2010.”

The report indicates that pipeline demand and volume also went up, but part of this was several pipelines reversing direction to be able to carry natural gas liquid residue from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast instead of vice versa. The report also addresses the increased production and transportation of ethanol due largely to Congressional mandates. (They chemical properties of ethanol have made it generally unsuitable for pipeline transportation, so rail and truck carry most of it.)

A chart from page 54 of the report shows how demand for transport of either crude oil or ethanol by rail was negligible until 2005, when ethanol started taking off, followed five years later by crude oil transport. At its peak, in 2014, U.S. freight rail moved almost 800,000 tanker cars of such fuels.

The accidental spills of ethanol and crude oil in rail accidents does not show a particular pattern – bad derailments in Alabama and Illinois spiked the 2015 average for amount of crude oil spilled, as did a major ethanol train accident in Ohio in 2011.

Most of the recommendations of the study were common-sense items related to information sharing and best practices (shown below). But the are are two big ones:

  • “[T]he committee recommends that FRA enable and incentivize more frequent and comprehensive inspections of rail routes with regular energy liquids traffic, particularly by enabling railroads to exploit new inspection capabilities made possible by advances in sensor, high-resolution imaging, and autonomous systems technologies.”
  • “The committee recommends that PHMSA make a concerted effort to ensure that federal emergency preparedness grants are being used to meet the planning, training, and resource needs of communities that are facing new and unfamiliar risks as a result of the changes that have occurred in the routing and volume of energy liquids and gas shipments. As a starting point, PHMSA should review the extent to which emergency responders in these communities, especially in rural areas, are taking advantage of relevant government and industry response training opportunities, and then use this information to tailor programs that will enable and incentivize higher levels of participation.”

The other recommendations were:

  • The committee recommends that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration (PHMSA) undertake a comprehensive review of the successes and failures during the past decade in responding promptly and effectively to the transportation safety challenges presented by the domestic energy revolution for the purpose of informing the development of more anticipatory and robust safety assurance systems, including regulatory approaches.
  • [T[he committee recommends that PHMSA periodically consult with industry on developments impacting energy liquids and gas transportation and report annually on steps that are being taken to monitor and assess the risk implications of such developments.
  • [T]he committee recommends that PHMSA evaluate the utility of existing incident- and traffic-reporting data for the purpose of identifying and assessing public safety and environmental risks associated with transporting energy liquids and gases, determine whether new and improved incident- and traffic-reporting systems are needed, and ensure that these data and risk metrics are being shared with state emergency preparedness agencies and used by industry for safety assurance purposes.
  • [T]he committee recommends that PHMSA consult shippers and carriers on the kinds of data that are available and needed to improve incident- and traffic-reporting systems for the purpose of developing risk metrics—in that, indicators to assist in setting safety policies—and consult with state emergency preparedness agencies on opportunities for presenting and sharing these data and metrics with local communities and their emergency responders.
  • [T]he committee recommends that PHMSA and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regularly and systematically assess the risk-reducing effects of the HHFT rule, perhaps starting with a review of the crash and thermal performance of the new DOT-117 tank car designs.
  • [T]he committee recommends that FRA and PHMSA seek to model these factors systematically, giving attention, for instance, to the propagation of internal rail defects and the kinetics that arise from multi-car derailments.



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