Freight Rail Policy Stance: Freight railroads have long been committed to the safe transportation of hazardous materials. As a result of the rail industry’s approximately $25 billion in annual investments for infrastructure and technological innovation, rigorous employee training, and community safety efforts, more than 99.99% of rail hazardous materials shipments reach their destination without a train accident-caused release. To help maintain the safety of hazardous materials transportation and mitigate the consequences of rail accidents should they occur, railroads support:

  1. Making those who produce, sell, or use hazardous materials, as well as those who benefit from their (transportation by rail) use, share in the added liability and costs associated with transporting such materials, including the incorporation of needed safety enhancements; and
  2. Asking rail shippers to further bolster the safety of rail operations by fully and accurately disclosing and labeling hazardous materials shipments.

Regulatory Oversight of Hazardous Materials Transportation

Freight railroads move large quantities of hazardous materials that are critical to our nation’s health and quality of life, including fertilizer, ethanol, crude oil, and chlorine. However, railroads generally do not own the tank cars they transport; rather, tank cars are often purchased and maintained by shippers or equipment leasing companies. Railroads, as common carriers, are instead obligated to transport any freight, including hazardous materials, properly tendered on reasonable terms and conditions. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has indicated that railroads remain the safest above-the-ground mode of transportation for hazardous materials and therefore has supported the decision to continue the enforcement of this common carrier requirement.

Freight railroads invest approximately $25 billion annually in their private infrastructure and the development of new technologies in order to maintain and improve the safety of their operations regardless of what commodity they are hauling. However, the rail industry also focuses on three key areas with regard to the safety of hazardous materials transportation:

  • Prevention: Stopping accidents before they occur.
  • Mitigation: Reducing the consequences of accidents that do occur.
  • Emergency Response: Providing training and other resources to local first responders.

The transportation of hazardous materials by rail is subject to rigorous oversight by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Railroads work in partnership with these and other local, state, and federal entities on hazardous materials-related issues, including train routing, security, tank car design, emergency response, and more. Railroads also require compliance with certain industry best practices which at times exceed federal requirements for trains carrying hazardous materials.

Railroads have worked diligently to continue to improve their hazardous materials operations. As a result of these efforts and other ongoing safety initiatives, rail hazardous materials accidents have declined by 64% since 2000 and more than 99.99% of rail hazardous materials shipments reach their destination without a train accident-caused release.

Railroad Tank Cars

The current system of oversight for rail tank cars is multi-faceted, with federal minimum standards at times being exceeded by industry best practices. In this system, the Department of Transportation (DOT), specifically PHMSA, retains regulatory authority over the safety of rail transportation, including regulations covering product classification, operating rules, and minimum specifications for tank cars. Due to its technical expertise in safety-critical functions, DOT has delegated its authority on certain tank car safety matters to the Association of American Railroads’ Tank Car Committee (TCC), including technical design review and quality assurance program certification for tank car facilities. The TCC is composed of representatives from the railroads, shippers, and tank car builders and owners. Additionally, representatives from the Federal Railroad Administration, PHMSA, the National Transportation Safety Board, Transport Canada, and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada regularly attend and participate in many of the TCC’s quarterly meetings.

Separate from this delegated authority, the TCC also reviews and sets industry-wide interchange standards for the design and operation of tank cars in North America pursuant to voluntary agreement of the rail industry. While these interchange standards can at times require the tank car industry to exceed, or more quickly meet, DOT’s regulations, they can never relax DOT’s minimum requirements or degree of oversight. This system has ensured that today’s tank cars are built with better thermal protection, higher grade steel, and better valves and fittings, and has improved tank car safety at a speed not otherwise possible through the traditional regulatory process. For example, in an effort to improve the puncture resistance of tank cars carrying crude oil and ethanol, the TCC voluntarily promulgated improved tank car safety interchange standards (CPC-1232) four years before PHMSA published its final rule setting forth similar DOT-117 tank car specifications.

Proper Shipper Labeling of Hazardous Materials

Federal law requires rail customers to properly disclose and label hazardous materials shipments in order to ensure that appropriate railcars are used and to assist emergency responders in case of an accident.  Freight railroads support asking rail shippers to do their part to protect the safety of rail operations by fully and accurately disclosing and labeling hazardous materials shipments.