By R. Bruce Striegler

After the 2013 derailment and explosion of an oil train that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, many pointed to old, DOT-111 tanker models as a main reason for the disaster and others like it. But at least four of the five recent incidents have involved newer, and theoretically safer, CPC-1232 models. With tens of thousands of oil cars criss-crossing the continent, safety regulations and standards must be harmonized between Canada and the U.S., a process occurring with little notable sense of urgency on the U.S. side.

Despite successive accidents across North America involving the DOT-111s, those railcars remained the oil-by-rail workhorse until February, 2014. It was more than a year after Lac-Mégantic that Canadian federal regulators required they be refitted as sturdier CPC-1232 tank cars. In March of 2015, Canada proposed new tankercar standards.

The new standards call for a hull thickness of 9/16 inch, up from the current 7/16 inch or half inch, depending on car type. Older DOT-111 cars are being replaced in Canada by CPC-1232 cars, but even these will have to be phased out by 2023 or 2025, depending on whether they are jacketed or not under the proposed standards. Jacketed cars have an outer cover that provides additional thermal protection. Although they are deemed somewhat safer than the older DOT-111 cars, nine CPC-1232 cars ruptured in CN’s recent northern Ontario derailments and fires.

The robustness of tankercars has become a major focus of efforts to improve the safety of shipping crude by rail. In the U.S., shipments have soared from about 21,200 barrels per day (bpd) in 2009 to 1.04 million bpd at the end of 2014. As the U.S. shale boom gathered speed, the safety of crude shipments by rail has attracted greater scrutiny, especially after the derailment in Lac-Mégantic. So far in the U.S., speed limits have been adopted, and a new rule in North Dakota requires crude from the state to be treated to make it less combustible. Quoted in media reports, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, said the railroad-industry trade group “wants all tank cars carrying crude oil, including the CPC-1232, to be upgraded by retrofitting or taken out of service. Railroads share the public’s deep concern regarding the safe movement of crude oil by rail.”

U.S. administration to bring in proposed regulations in May

The public mood in the U.S. can be summed up in a March 7 press release from the U.S.-based Center for Biological Diversity. “Before one more derailment, fire, oil spill and one more life lost, we need a moratorium on oil trains, and we need it now”. The oil and railroad industries are playing Russian roulette with people’s lives and our environment, and the Obama administration needs to put a stop to it.” The organization points out that the Obama administration recently delayed for several months the approval of proposed safety rules for oil trains. The group adds, “The proposed rules fall short because they fail to require appropriate speed limitations, and it will be at least another two and a half years before the most dangerous tank cars are phased out of use for the most hazardous cargoes. The oil and railroad industries have lobbied for weaker rules on tank car safety and brake requirements.”

The U.S. administration has also declined to set national regulations on the level of volatile gases in crude oil transported by rail, instead deciding to leave that regulation to the state of North Dakota, the major point of origin of the Bakken oil. By this May, the U.S. government is expected to finalize regulations that would increase the safety of moving hazardous materials by rail, including federal tank car standards and rail operating rules for trains carrying certain hazardous materials including crude oil and ethanol. Freight railroads support the federal standards for tank cars, and cars with increased shell thickness, jacket protection, thermal protection, full-height head shields, high-capacity pressure relief devices, as well as bottom-outlet handle protection and top-fittings protection.

In the past, Alberta bitumen not considered as volatile as Bakken shale oil

There are renewed calls for Alberta and Bakken crude producers to lower the volatility of their oil products before shipping by rail. With the newer CPC-1232 car involved in the latest derailments and fires, attention will again turn to tankercars. But safety advocates in the U.S. say the problem is not the containers but with the oil itself, prompting calls for the government to force railways to use stabilization towers, common in Texas, but not in Alberta or North Dakota, to remove the more volatile light-end products like propane and butane from the oil before shipping.

In recent news reports, the Executive Director of the Crude Oil Quality Association, said the idea that Alberta crude was involved in the recent Ontario accidents, “certainly broadens our concerns” beyond the Bakken-produced oil. He noted there are some in the industry who believed the problem of extremely volatile oil was unique to the Bakken formation, which straddles North Dakota, Montana, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Producers in the area will soon be required to take extra precautions to reduce oil volatility.

Separately, CP Rail CEO Hunter Harrison has been quoted saying that the company would like the right to reject some dangerous goods on some routes. He cited concerns from the organization’s Board of Directors about the company’s liability and possible dangers to the public. Transport Canada, however, says it has no plans to change so-called “common carrier” laws that require railways to carry all legal goods.

Critics call out regulators on volatility of both Alberta and North Dakota oil

For years, Alberta bitumen has been considered less volatile and safer to transport than oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields. (In its report on the Lac-Mégantic derailment, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board likened the volatility of Bakken oil to gasoline.) But the recent bitumen spills at Gogama should give federal regulators, shippers and carriers pause. The widely-held industry belief that Alberta crude is safer than Bakken oil appears wrong.

On its own, bitumen is considered essentially non-flammable in a derailment. But to get the thick, tarry crude to flow in and out of tank cars, a diluent is added; that diluent renders the product highly volatile. Alberta Innovates, a consortium of industry, government and university researchers, recently found that diluted bitumen, known as “dilbit,” has a volatility similar to Bakken crude. Transport Canada should therefore ensure the testing and categorization of it as a higher-class dangerous product, similar to the Bakken oil process.

There are hopes that Bakken crude can be treated to remove benzene and other “light end” substances before loading, rendering it mildly flammable instead of highly explosive. The same is not true for dilbit, because the highly volatile diluents are added to the crude to make it less viscous. A safer procedure is to heat bitumen at origin before loading into a tank car and again at destination, prior to unloading. Some tank cars are equipped with internal steam coils for this purpose and are used in crude oil service, but a requirement for such heating elements is not included in the specifications proposed for a future DOT-117 tank car to replace both the DOT-111 and CPC-1232 cars now in service.

Why has it taken so long to get the old cars off the tracks?

Transport Canada says 147,000 older DOT-111 tank cars are hauling flammable liquids on North American railways, and 80,000 of these were built before 2011. The new CPC-1232 cars had critics sounding alarms even before the tankercars were put into use in June, 2014. The TSB refused to endorse the cars, calling them “not sufficiently robust.” The TSB claimed the cars “performed similarly to those involved in the Lac-Mégantic accident” and urged the federal government to “go further than the 1232 standard.” Recent accidents involving the cars should raise alarms: both Gogama spills involved CPC-1232 cars. So did two others involving crude shipments in in West Virginia and Illinois in the last month.

The rail industry, concerned that authorities in Canada and the U.S. are failing to recognize the failings of these tank cars, proposes a new design for oil shipments. These cars would have thicker steel shells, a release valve allowing pressure to be released in case of fire and full steel shields to protect in the event of a rollover where cars tend to rip each other apart. These tankers, designed by Oregon’s Greenbrier Companies, have been found to be twice as safe as the CPC-1232s and eight times less likely to spill in testing.

The drop in oil prices has dampened orders for tank cars, and building replacements has been complicated by the length of time governments in Canada and the United States have taken to issue new rules. Washington is not expected to announce its standards and regulations until May, while tank-car makers have been building a model that matches the standards most recently proposed by Canada.

Industry group Railway Supply Institute says companies that manufacture flammable goods tank cars in North America have an order backlog of 57,625, since crude shippers are scrambling to meet the bans on older cars. The handful of railcar manufacturers are adding capacity, and are expected to deliver about 40,000 new tankers this year, five thousand more than 2014. At a cost of more than $60,000 per car, they have upgraded almost 8,500 older tank cars. Tanker manufacturers refuse to talk about costs, but industry observers note that those with the newest standards will sell for around $200,000, up about 25 per cent over the older models.

Sarah Feinberg, the acting U.S. Federal Railroad Administrator, said recently that improving the safety of crude transportation will require a multipronged approach. “This situation calls for an all-of-the-above approach—one that addresses the product itself, the tank car it is being carried in, and the way the train is being operated,” she said.