New federal safety standards for oil trains released

Updated: April 8, 2016 - 1:45 pm

New federal rules have been issued for trains carrying oil and other flammable liquids.

The rules — developed by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and Federal Railroad Administration in coordination with Canada — mandate new standards for the quality of tank cars transporting oil and braking equipment, designate new protocols for trains carrying large volumes of flammable liquids and call for new sampling and testing requirements to improve the classification of oil transported by rail.

The new standards were issued May 1.

“Safety has been our top priority at every step in the process for finalizing this rue, which is a significant improvement over the current regulations and requirements  and will make transporting flammable liquids safer,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, in a statement. “Our close collaboration with Canada on new tank car standards is recognition that the trains moving unprecedented amounts of crude by rail are not U.S. or Canadian tank cars — they are part of a North American fleet and a shared safety challenge.”

The amount of trains carrying Bakken crude oil has skyrocketed in recent years with several trains passing through Minnesota, including Minneapolis, on their way to refineries.

The new federal rule requires that tank cars constructed after Oct. 1, 2015 have thicker tank shells and other improvements to make them safer in the event of a derailment. All oil trains will have to meet the new standards within five years, according to an overview of the rules released by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

U.S. Al Franken, a Democrat, said the new guidelines are a “good step forward,” but aren’t timely enough to address the public safety problem posed by the oil trains.

“But this isn’t enough,” Franken said. “For one, this is no time to slow-walk the rollout of safer tank cars. I also want to see further action to reduce the volatility of oil being shipped through my state and across the country, which is something I’ve been fighting for.”

State Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-61A), a leader at the state Capitol on oil train issues, called the new rules “inadequate.”

“New federal oil train regulations are inadequate to protect Minnesotans from the dangers of catastrophic explosions, leaks and fires from volatile Bakken crude traveling through the state,” he said. “I am deeply troubled that the USDOT handed the oil and railroad industry a huge victory, while over 326,000 Minnesotans living in oil train blast zones will continue to be at risk.”

He said the phase-out of the most dangerous oil train cars will take too long and train speeds remain too high in urban areas. BNSF recently reduced speeds of its oil trains passing through the Twin Cities to 35 mph.

Hornstein also wants to see railroads be required to reduce the volatility of oil shipped by rail and provide more information to communities and public safety officials along the oil train routes.

“Minnesota will continue to be at the geographic epicenter of oil transportation in the country,” he said. “The inadequate response at the Federal level means that state regulators and local public safety officials must now redouble their efforts to press the railroads for greater transparency in their operations to ensure that Minnesotans are protected from the risks of oil trains in their communities.”

Federal Railroad Acting Administrator Sarah Feinberg sounded more optimistic about the new guidelines in a statement issued May 1.

“This rule will save lives and homes, and protect communities,” she said. “As I have said before, there is no silver bullet that will solve this challenge. … We will continue to focus on this challenge, not just today, but in the future.”

The Journals recently published an in-depth report, “Risky Rails,” examining oil train safety issues in Minneapolis.