April 7, 2015

A Proposal to Improve Oil Train Safety

In the May 2015 issue, Trains columnists Don Phillips and Fred W. Frailey each address the dangers of carrying oil by rail. This is a topic of great concern to the public at large, given the recent spate of derailments resulting in exploding tank cars. The columns are not reassuring.

Don Phillips emphasizes the necessity of shipping oil by rail and points out that many other equally dangerous commodities—he mentions chlorine and anhydrous ammonia—can also be found on our trains. I think I was supposed to find this reassuring:
There has not been a single death in an oil-train wreck in the United States in six years, and little off-rail damage. Even if the fiery wrecks had been in cities, oil tank cars generally don’t explode immediately. There is usually time to evacuate.
Phillips seems to think that reporters are paying too much attention to derailments involving oil tank cars in the aftermath of the Lac-Mégantic disaster in Quebec.

Fred Frailey avoids blaming the messengers and attempts to provide some useful context in which to view oil train accidents. He is decidedly not reassuring, noting, for example, that, in a number of recent accidents, the tank cars involved have been the reputedly safer CPC-1232 variety, not the much maligned DOT-111 design. Accidents happen, and, even though something like 99.995% of railcars carrying crude oil reach their destination without incident, that percentage is still not 100. Given the incidence of derailments in the U.S., Frailey estimates that we can expect “nine or 10 accidents annually involving loaded crude-oil trains.” He urges railroads to improve safety through increased maintenance and inspection. Accidents have decreased by half in the last decade, but more progress is needed.

If crude oil is to be moved by rail, can its transportation be made safer by means other than maintenance and inspection? In theory, of course, the answer is yes, but costs can be prohibitive. Phillips suggests that shipping blocks of tank cars in regular manifest trains rather than in unit oil trains “would be too complicated and too costly.” Frailey, acknowledging that moving oil trains at lower speeds would decrease the frequency of serious accidents, argues that the effect on rail traffic generally would be crippling, as it would decrease the carrying capacity of the existing rail infrastructure.

Any safety improvements in rail shipment of crude oil will come at a price, and no change, no matter how costly, will reduce risk to zero.

A Proposal

A suggestion I have not heard is the use of idler cars in oil trains, that is, empty flatcars or boxcars placed between tank cars or cuts of tank cars. What has been particularly scary about oil train accidents has been the successive explosion of adjacent cars. Idler cars would tend to limit the number of oil-laden cars leaving the track in a derailment, as well as offer something of a firewall between tank cars. (Boxcars, which are plentiful, would probably work better than flatcars in this application.) No doubt, Don Phillips would complain about the cost and complexity of this safety move, but I would argue that it isn’t that complex. A cost-benefit analysis would be needed to choose the optimum number of loaded tank cars between the idler cars. In light of recent accidents, I suspect that number is less than 20, perhaps a good deal less.

My proposal would cost money, but it undoubtedly would decrease the severity of oil train derailments, even if no other steps were taken to improve safety.

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