Freight Rail Policy Stance: Freight railroads are committed to safe transportation of hazardous materials (hazmat). Railroads support 1.) Making those who produce, sell or use highly hazardous materials, as well as those who benefit from their use, share in the added liability and costs associated with transporting them; 2.) Asking rail shippers to do their part to protect safety by fully and accurately disclosing and labelling hazmat shipments.
Why This Matters: These efforts will help to mitigate the consequences of rail accidents should they occur.
Regulatory Oversight of Hazmat Transportation
Freight railroads move vast quantities of the products that are critical to our health and quality of life, including fertilizer, ethanol, crude oil shipments by rail (CBR) and chlorine. Some of these products are considered hazmat. Railroads are regulated by the U.S. government as common carriers, and therefore railroads are required to move these materials. The U.S. Department of Transportation has indicated that railroads are the safest mode of transportation for hazmat and therefore has supported the decision to enforce the common carrier requirement.
Railroads devote enormous resources to safe operations no matter what they are hauling, but the focus on hazmat transport revolves around three key areas:
- Prevention: Stopping accidents before they occur.
- Mitigation: Reducing the impact of accidents that do occur.
- Emergency response: Providing training and other resources to local first responders.
The transportation of hazmat by rail is subject to strict oversight by the Federal Railroad Administration, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. Railroads work in partnership with these and other local, state and federal entities on hazmat-related issues including train routing, security, tank car design, emergency response and more. In addition to following federal regulations, railroads apply their own special operating procedures for trains carrying hazmat.
With hazmat rail shipments — including CBR — increasing in recent years, railroads undertook a top-to-bottom review of their hazmat operations. As a result of these efforts and other ongoing safety initiatives over the years, rail hazmat accident rates have dropped by 66% since 2000.
In May 2015, PHMSA, in coordination with FRA, issued a final rule on the movement of flammable liquids by rail, including CBR and ethanol. The final rule includes new operational requirements for certain trains transporting a large volume of Class 3 flammable liquids, improvements in tank car standards and revised requirements to ensure proper classification and characterization of energy products placed in transport.
Railroad Tank Cars
PHMSA is the federal regulator for the movement of hazmat by rail, with regulations covering product classification, operating rules and tank car standards. In addition, the Association of American Railroads Tank Car Committee — comprised of railroads, railcar owners and manufacturers and hazmat shippers with active participation from DOT, Transport Canada and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) — separately reviews and establishes industrywide standards for the design and operation of tank cars in North America.
In May 2015, the DOT released a final rule establishing new, tougher standards for tank cars carrying certain hazmat, including crude oil. The new standards are known as “DOT-117” specifications.
While a good start, the new specifications were not stringent enough in certain areas, and freight railroads advocated for further action. In turn, provisions in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act addressed several of the rule’s shortcomings. Specifically, the FAST Act required increased thermal blanket protection for tank cars, a risk-based approach to phasing out tank cars carrying flammable liquids starting with crude oil tank cars first, followed by tank cars carrying ethanol, then followed by tank cars carrying other flammable liquids and required top fittings protection on tank car retrofits. These enhancements will help to mitigate the consequences of rail accidents should they occur.
Separately, the May 2015 DOT tank car rules mandated the use of a technology called electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes in certain trains carrying hazmat. Unfortunately, widespread use of ECP brakes would not provide any meaningful safety benefits compared to existing braking systems. ECP brakes would impose very large costs for minimal safety benefits. Several U.S. railroads have experimented with using ECP brakes over the years, but ECP braking systems proved to be so trouble-prone that none have been able to justify regular use. In fact, nowhere in the world are ECP brakes used under conditions similar to what the May 2015 requirements would mandate for U.S. railroads.
For these reasons, the FAST Act included a provision directing the Government Accountability Office and the National Academy of Sciences to conduct an independent evidence-based evaluation of ECP brake systems, due in summer 2017. As a result of these evaluations, DOT announced on December 4, 2017, its intent to rescind the ECP brake mandate.
Proper Shipper Labeling of Hazmat
Federal law requires rail customers to properly disclose and label hazmat shipments to ensure that appropriate railcars are used and to assist emergency responders in case of an accident. To that end, in March 2013, PHMSA and FRA launched “Operation Classification,” a compliance initiative involving unannounced inspections and testing of crude oil samples from the Bakken region to verify that the oil is properly classified. In January 2014, based on data collected through Operation Classification, PHMSA issued a safety alert announcing that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil. The FAST Act included requirements for additional studies to be performed on the classification of crude oil. Those studies are still ongoing.