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Coming Soon: Railcar Design , Track Changes

By The Bakken magazine staff | February 10, 2014

The practice of shipping Bakken crude by rail may soon change. The derailment of a grain train and the collision with a crude oil train near Casselton, N.D., that followed, has brought national attention to the transportation method responsible for moving roughly 70 percent of oil produced in the Williston Basin to refineries outside of the region. The changes could impact the specifications for railcars used to transport crude, the safety protocols implemented by rail operators, classifications for Bakken crude and the near-term, time-based efficiencies related to the current process of Bakken crude-by-rail methods.

Several parties will play a role in the future of the transportation method, including the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration, oil industry representatives, railroad representatives and state and local government officials. The PHMSA recently closed a comment period on the proposed rulemaking it started forming two years ago. The proposed rules would improve safety of railroad tank car transportation. The proposed rules drew comments from the American Petroleum Institute and Hess Corp., among many others. The American Association of Railroads had also proposed a number of tank car updates or requirements through P-1577, a petition for new standards created by the AAR tank car committee that the PHMSA has also been considering.

The proposed rules could potentially alter tank car design and rail carrier operations. Tank car designs could include thermal protection to address breaches attributable to exposure from fire conditions; roll-over protection to prevent damage to top and bottom fittings; hinged and bolted manways that would stop a common cause of leakage during accidents; and, bottom outlet valve elimination. Rail car operations could be changed through rail integrity improvements on broken rails, track geometry and other elements to reduce the car volume and severity of derailments; alternative brake signal systems to reduce number of cars and energy linked to derailments; speed restrictions for trains with 20 or more loaded tank cars and emergency response changes.

The proposed rules were not expected for many months, but following the Casselton derailment incident and the work of the oil industry and both North Dakota senators, the rules will be issued much sooner. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., met with BNSF, the railway operator that owned the portion of rail where the derailment took place. The senators also met with officials from the U.S. DOT and PHMSA after the DOT indicated rules governing the construction of new rail tanker cars wouldn’t be finalized until January 2015.

The delegation, including other government officials, rail and oil industry representatives, met with Anthony Foxx, secretary for the DOT, Cynthia Quarterman, head of the PHMSA, and Joesph Szabo, head of the Federal Railroad Administration. Following the meeting, the delegation agreed to take specific actions within 30 days of the meeting.

“I am encouraged the oil and rail industries and government officials are working together to find a solutions which will restore public confidence in rail transportation and provide better safety to our citizens,” said Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.).

The North Dakota Petroleum Council was also pleased with the news from the meeting that safety standards would be issued sooner than later. “The PHMSA has sat on the enhanced safety standards for more than two years,” said Ron Ness, president of the NDPC in a statement. “We are pleased to find out these standards may finally be closer to being released so manufacturers can begin production of better, more secure rail cars.”