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Policy Issues


AAR POLICY POSITION: Freight railroads support:

  • The enhanced operating procedures of crude oil by rail as outlined by the February 2014 DOT agreement.
  • Making those responsible for producing and selling highly hazardous materials, as well as those who benefit from their use, share in the added liability and costs associated with transporting them.
  • Tougher federal tank car standards for crude oil and other flammable liquids.
  • Older cars that do not meet the new standards should be retrofitted or phased out as quickly as possible.
  • The adequate funding of federal programs that support first responder training for hazmat and other rail incidents.
  • The January 2014 PHMSA safety alert and urging rail shippers to fully and accurately disclose and label hazmat shipments.

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 by rail (CBR) and chlorine. However, some products carried by railroads are hazardous, if mishandled. Railroads devote enormous resources to safe operations no matter what they are hauling, but the focus on hazardous materials (hazmat) transport revolves around three key areas:

1. Prevention (stopping accidents before they occur)

2. Mitigation (reducing the impact of accidents that do occur) 

3. 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 (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 hazmat-related issues including train routing, security, tank car design, emergency response and more. In addition to federal regulations, railroads have special operating procedures for trains carrying hazmat. 

In light of increased hazmat — such as CBR — moving by rail in recent years, railroads undertook a top-to-bottom review of their hazmat operations. As a result, they modified some of their operating rules and entered into a voluntary agreement with the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) specifically on the movement of CBR. As a result of these efforts and other ongoing safety initiatives over the years, rail hazmat accident rates have dropped by 66% since 2000 alone.

In May 2015, PHMSA, in coordination with FRA, issued a final rulemaking 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.

Railroads have implemented new op erating rules issued by DOT related to CBR, including the August 2013 Emergency Order Safety Advisory and the May 2014 Emergency Order.

Railroad Tank Cars

PHMSA is the federal regulator for the movement of hazardous materials by rail, with regulations covering product classification, operating rules and tank car standards. In addition, the AAR Tank Car Committee — comprised of railroads, rail car 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. The rail industry has for several years been aggressively advocating for ways to improve tank car safety beyond what is required by federal regulation.

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 FAST Act addressed several of the rule's shortcomings. Specifically, the FAST Act required increased thermal blanket protection for tank cars, restricted the use of older tank cars moving 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 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 the summer of 2017. The DOT has until December 4, 2017, to publish a determination that the ECP mandate either is justified or should be repealed.

Supporting our Nation's First Responders

Railroads are dedicated to providing first responders with the training and resources they need to safely respond in the rare event of a train accident. Railroads annually train more than 20,000 first responders in communities across the country, and in just two years, more than 3,300 emergency responders have received intensive, week-long training in CBR response techniques at the industry's Security and Emergency Response Training Center (SERTC) in Pueblo, Colorado. Even more have participated in the industry's free online CBR safety course, which provides web-based training for those who cannot travel to Colorado. In the field, freight rail's AskRail app is making a difference and Transportation Technology Center, Inc. (TTCI) safety experts are traveling the country to instruct rural volunteer emergency responders about flammable liquids response.

Proper Shipper Labeling of Hazmat

Federal law requires rail customers to properly disclose and label hazmat shipments to ensure that appropriate rail cars 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.