Bomb Squad #Fail

The new rules for oil trains are horrifyingly inadequate.

A derailed CSX train spills oil into the James River in April 2014. Photo: Waterkeeper Alliance Inc./Flickr

The U.S. Department of Transportation proposed new rules for trains carrying crude oil on Friday, and for good reason. The situation is dire. Both 2013 and 2014 set records for oil train accidents, and 2015 is off to a bad start. Each accident is a human and an environmental disaster. A July 2013 crash in Quebec, for example, killed 47 people and burned much of the town of Lac-Megantic to the ground. The November 2013 spill in Aliceville, Alabama, dumped more than 700,000 gallons of crude into a sensitive marshland. A month later, an oil train exploded in Casselton, North Dakota, spilling 400,000 gallons. 

The new rules, however, will not eliminate oil train crashes, especially in the next few years. Here is a summary of what they do well, and where they fall short.

Phasing out old tankers—slowly

I almost feel sorry for the DOT-111 tanker car—the most public villain in the spate of bomb-train disasters—because it was never designed to carry oil. The DOT-111 was created more than 50 years ago to carry nonhazardous liquids like corn syrup (nonhazardous unless you eat it, I mean). The oldest DOT-111s, many of which are still on the rails, are made of thin steel, lack reinforcement on the front and back of the car, and have valves that readily open in the event of a crash. A rail consultant called the DOT-111s “Pepsi cans on wheels.” Despite all this, someone in the train industry eventually decided they could transport just about anything, including explosive crude oil. If you’re going to get mad, get mad at that guy.

You can also get mad at the federal government. The National Transportation and Safety Board recognized the DOT-111’s flaws in a 1991 report, but consecutive administrations (and Congress) did nothing to tighten the rules. The inaction is baffling, especially once oil train accidents began to swell in the last few years.

The new rules address some of the problems. The minimum shell thickness will increase from 7/16 inches to 9/16 inches for most cars. The handle on the bottom outlet—the one that keeps popping open and spilling oil after derailments—will be removed or redesigned. Shielding will be installed on the front of the train car, and thermal protection will be required to prevent fire and explosions.

The problem is that that these changes won’t come for years. The oldest DOT-111s can stay on the rails for three more years, and more recent models, which still have serious flaws, will continue transporting oil until 2020. 

Pause for a moment to consider the absurdity of this situation. Everyone—the government, the oil industry, railroad engineers, ordinary people who read the news—knows that the DOT-111 is not suited to carry oil. In the past two years, the cars have spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil and are responsible for dozens of deaths. It makes no sense to leave them on the rails for three to five more years. What will the transportation department say to the family of the next person to die in a DOT-111 accident?

Imagine a car manufacturer acknowledging a design flaw that caused a string of ghastly explosions and deaths, but telling the public it planned to delay a recall for three years. The government wouldn’t stand for it. I can’t see how this situation is different.

Improving brakes—eventually

The proposed DOT rule would require all oil trains to carry pneumatic brakes with electronic controls. Industry has complained bitterly about the brake rule, arguing that it would cost between $8,000 and $10,000 and would not reduce accidents.

Those claims are a bit hard to swallow. You don’t need me to explain why better brakes, with shortened stopping distances, prevent accidents, but I guess I’ll do it anyway. The 2013 catastrophe in Casselton, North Dakota, began when a 13-car train carrying grain westbound derailed. The oil train, traveling east on an adjacent track, crashed into the derailed grain cars because it couldn’t stop in time. Braking distance matters.

As for the expense, the oil industry turned a $93 billion profit last year. The government estimates that the brakes will cost less than $500 million between now and 2034—an annual price tag of approximately $25 million. The oil industry should be able to find that money between its sofa cushions.

If that doesn’t work, then perhaps the price of oil will rise slightly. That’s a small ask in an era of very low gasoline prices, especially when the safety of innocent people and environmental quality are at risk.

Imposing speed limits—in some places

The proposed rule would restrict oil trains to 50 miles per hour in most areas. In “high-threat urban areas,” the rules would limit trains to 40 miles per hour.

The speed restrictions are probably the most disappointing and inadequate component of the DOT’s initiative. The 50-mile-per-hour limit will do nothing to minimize accidents, as oil transporters have already imposed an identical speed limit. And very few accidents have happened (or would likely ever happen) in the 40-mile-per-hour zones, since they cover a very small area including a few dozen major cities. Oil trains tend to crash in places like Parkers Prairie, Minnesota, not Chicago or New York City.

Even the lower speed limit is too fast for a train carrying hundreds of thousands of gallons of a highly flammable liquid. DOT-111 rail cars punctures in 8 mph collisions. Even the more modern tanker cars are prone to puncture at speeds of less than 20 miles per hour. When the next oil train disaster happens, the 50-mph speed limit will probably be the biggest culprit.

“The failure to impose a safe speed limit renders the other steps the government is taking ineffective at protecting communities in blast zones,” says Anthony Swift, deputy director of NRDC’s Canada project (disclosure).

So why is the Department of Transportation settling for a limit of more than twice that speed? I’ll give you one guess. The profitability of oil trains depends entirely on how fast they can move. Most transporters lease their cars for approximately $4,000 for two months of service. They can go from the well to the refinery and back three times during that period. Setting a responsible speed limit—something more like 20 miles per hour—would halve their profitability and could force producers to turn to other means of transportation.

What kind of transportation? There is approximately 500,000 barrels per day of unused pipeline capacity leading from the Bakken shale to refineries. In the last four years, producers have rejected the opportunity to build three new pipelines. The low price of rail transport—artificially low, because it doesn’t reflect the cost of safety and environmental protection—makes this situation possible. Pipelines aren’t perfect, but at least they’re not killing people dozens at a time. 


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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