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U.S. follows Canada’s lead on rail safety directives following Lac-Megantic tragedy

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor
August 05, 2013

Following the tragic event on July 6 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, when a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train carrying crude oil derailed, resulting in a massive explosion and 47 casualties, Transport Canada, the Canadian equivalent of the United States Department of Transportation, issued an emergency directive designed to increase rail safety.

This directive is comprised of various requirements to prevent this terrible event from ever occurring again, including: ensuring that no locomotive attached to one or more loaded tank cars transporting dangerous goods is operated with fewer than two qualified persons on a main track or sidings; ensuring that no locomotive attached to one or more loaded tank cars transporting dangerous goods is left unattended on a main track; and ensuring the directional controls, commonly known as reversers, are removed from any unattended locomotives, preventing them from moving forward or backward, on a main track or sidings, among others.

Taking Canada’s lead, the United States Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) late last week issued its own “Emergency Order and Safety Advisory” to help prevent trains operating on mainline tracks or sidings from moving unintentionally.

From the time of the FRA’s release on August 2 through the following 30 days to September 2, the FRA is requiring the following for all U.S.-based railroads:
-no train or vehicles transporting specified hazardous materials can be left unattended on a mainline track or side track outside a yard or terminal, unless specifically authorized;
-in order to receive authorization to leave a train unattended, railroads must develop and submit to FRA a process for securing unattended trains transporting hazardous materials, including locking the locomotive or otherwise disabling it, and reporting among employees to ensure the correct number of hand brakes are applied;
-employees who are responsible for securing trains and vehicles transporting such specified hazardous material must communicate with the train dispatchers the number of hand brakes applied, the tonnage and length of the train or vehicle, the grade and terrain features of the track, any relevant weather conditions, and the type of equipment being secured;
-train dispatchers must record the information provided. The dispatcher or other qualified railroad employee must verify that the securement meets the railroad’s requirements, and they must verify that the securement meets the railroad’s requirements;
-railroads must implement rules ensuring that any employee involved in securing a train participate in daily job briefings prior to the work being performed; and
-railroads must develop procedures to ensure a qualified railroad employee inspects all equipment that an emergency responder has been on, under or between before the train can be left unattended

The FRA also added that in conjunction with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration it issued a Safety Advisory calling for various recommendations for railroads to follow, including the use of multiple crew members and railroads reviewing cross-staffing requirements for transporting hazardous material, and conducting system-wide evaluations to identify particular hazards making it more difficult to secure a train or pose other safety risks and to develop procedures to mitigate those risks.

This is all comprehensive, to be sure, but given the severity and loss of life resultant of this terrible event, it is also a must-do.

What’s more, it was fully supported by the Association of American Railroads, whom said freight railroads have for decades had a set of self-prescribed recommended safety operating practices for handling certain hazardous materials, which in many areas exceed federal requirements.

“Railroads are always looking for ways to make this nation’s rail network safer for our employees, our communities and the environment,” AAR President and CEO Ed Hamberger said in a statement. “Railroads will implement what has been issued by the FRA today and examine what additional steps might be appropriate to ensure rail continues to be one of the safest ways to move hazardous materials.” 

This comes at a time when moving crude oil by rail has become a major strength for the railroad industry.

A March Bloomberg report pointed out how the crude by rail (CBR) “opportunity” may be around for more than a while. The story cited a report by ITG Investment Research, which stated that more oil will need to be transported by rail over the next ten years are pipeline capacity from Western Canada, the U.S Bakken shale deposit, and the Rockies lags rising production. It added that even if all planned projects such as Keystone XL and pipelines to Canada’s coast are built, about 600,000 more barrels a day must move by rail in those areas by mid-2014.

And in February, the AAR reported that U.S. Class I railroads originated a record 233,811 carloads of crude oil in 2012, representing a 256 percent gain (not a typo) from the 65,751 carloads of crude oil originated in 2011. This is coming at a time when coal loadings continue to be down roughly ten percent annually. 

With the tragic events of Lac-Megantic behind us, investigators continue to dig for more specifics on what caused this event to occur. But at the same time, the CBR movement will continue to carry forth.

“It looks as if CBR will continue on, although supply chain disruption remains a possibility,” wrote Tony Hatch, noted rail analyst and principal of ABH Consulting, in a research report. “[W]eeks into the accident inquiry and some questions are answered, some not, with ultimate responsibility also not yet assigned.  However, the main thrust of my focus—regarding the long term viability of the rail industry and CBR—is coming slowly into focus.  As I suspected, there is nothing so far that would be considered a systemic railway safety issue.  Admittedly, second quarter 2013 showed some modest declines in safety metrics at the Class One rails, but the track record and therefore the underlying point should be made clear.  The rails spend huge amounts of capex on their network, their safety records reflect a culture of improvement, and they carry seriously dangerous goods—often reluctantly but all of the time (and 99.999% safely).  The common carriage requirement for rails, and the changes imposed by the safety regulators will not impact railways ops significantly and at the same time, by codifying best practices, should help restore confidence from the public.” 

Hatch added that the still-unknown nature of the explosion could have ramifications on railcars, and hence CBR capacity, as well as on safety and risk responsibility within the complex CBR/chemical supply chain. 

About the Author

Jeff Berman headshot
Jeff Berman
Group News Editor

Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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