NTSB Train Recommendations Seek To Improve Safety

Posted on January 28, 2014

Yesterday, we related the news that the DOT-111A train car currently used to shuttle crude oil across the country may have suffered from safety shortcomings dating back decades.  The issue of train safety has captured the spotlight on the heels of multiple crashes in which a train carrying combustible oil derailed and endangered persons in the vicinity.  One particular crash that took place in Quebec took the lives of 47 individuals.

This crash and others have spurred safety advocates to exert pressure on federal officials to enact standards related to the safe transportation of crude oil.  Now, on the heels of the aforementioned crashes and the various calls for action, the National Transportation Safety Board (in conjunction with Canada’s Transportation Safety Board) has come out with new safety recommendations for trains.  However, whether or not one particular precaution that could save lives is going to be carried out remains to be seen.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration were the recipients of the NTSB’s recommendations, which started with one piece of advice focused on improving the manner of planning routes used for the transportation of crude oil.  The hope is that the trains can travel far away from population centers where a derailment and ensuing explosion would cause a widespread loss of life.

Another issue that has come about is the idea that the agencies transporting the oil may be improperly classifying it.  Another of the NTSB’s recommendations seeks to reduce that risk by calling for an audit system.  Once in place, those audits could hopefully identify instances where improper classification took place.  They would also act as incentive for rail carriers to not purposely misclassify their hazardous materials.

The NTSB wants the companies that are transporting the oil to be able to respond appropriately when all the precautions come to nought and the train derails anyway.  They want such entities to develop plans that would address situations where a worst-case scenario unfolds along the tracks.  In this way, no one could be caught off guard or not know what to do when an accident happens.

Unfortunately, one thing that is notably missing is any concrete progress on the adoption of stricter safety mechanisms that could be retrofitted onto existing cars to make them safer.  The NTSB actually made such a recommendation after an incident in 2009, but as of yet, the PHMSA has yet to act on it.

That’s disappointing, as many believe that the cars currently used to transport crude oil should be puncture-resistant so that contents could be protected in the event of a derailment.  Retrofitting would offer additional protections to these tanker cars.

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