WASHINGTON -- In response to a deadly train derailment last summer, the Canadian government Wednesday ordered the country’s railroads to phase out tens of thousands of older, puncture-prone tank cars from crude oil transportation within three years.
Though Transport Canada and its U.S. equivalent, the Department of Transportation, have been working together to address widespread concerns about the safety of moving large quantities of crude oil and ethanol in trains, the announcement puts Canada a step ahead.
Both countries historically have harmonized their regulation of rail transportation because of the seamless nature of North America’s rail system. Canada’s two largest railroads have significant operations in the United States.
Both governments have been working on new rules since last summer’s disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where 47 people died in a fire ignited by Bakken crude oil spilled from a derailed train. The cargo originated in North Dakota, and had the train reached its destination in New Brunswick, it would have crossed the border three times.
Large oil spills and fires from derailments late last year in Alabama and North Dakota underscored that the problem isn’t confined to one side of the border.
The general purpose model DOT-111 tank cars on those trains have long been considered by the National Transportation Safety Board to be vulnerable in derailments, and the agency had recommended improvements after multiple accidents over the years.
In the second day of a two-day hearing on rail safety in Washington, NTSB members expressed their impatience with the two federal agencies tasked with developing the new tank car regulations _ the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration.
The railroad industry originally petitioned the Transportation Department for the new rules three years ago.
Board member Robert Sumwalt said he feared that the regulation would get tangled up in additional reviews that could take until the end of the year. In the meantime, he said, U.S. communities might get left behind their Canadian counterparts in increased safety.
Earlier Wednesday, emergency response officials testified that most fire departments lacked the resources and training to deal with a rail disaster of the size seen recently.
“When is DOT going to step up to the plate?” Sumwalt asked.
Magdy El-Sibaie, associate administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said the agency is working “around the clock” to finish the new rules.
“If it was up to me only, it would be yesterday,” he testified.
Transport Canada didn’t just require the retirement or retrofit of older tank cars. It also banned 5,000 DOT-111 rail cars made of inferior steel from carrying crude oil and ethanol within 30 days. Such cars could continue to haul those commodities in the U.S.
Canada also required railroads to develop emergency response assistance plans for communities through which they ship hazardous goods. Such efforts are generally voluntary in the U.S.
“I am committed to making our country a model of world class safety,” Canadian Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said in a statement. “The measures I am announcing today improve the safety of the railway and transportation of dangerous goods systems from coast to coast to coast.”
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx was scheduled Thursday to visit Casselton, N.D., the site of a large crude oil spill and fire from a December train derailment. His office did not respond to requests for comment on Raitt's announcement.
Kevin Thompson, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, applauded the Canadian efforts and said the two countries would work together to improve safety, “including the possibility of an even more advanced tank car than is currently in use.”
“Our countries have different processes,” he said, “but we have the same goal: the safe transport of goods and people on the rails.”
The trade group for the largest U.S. railroads backed Raitt’s move. The Association of American Railroads asked the Transportation Department for tougher tank car regulations three years ago. But it improved the standards on its own rather than wait. Transport Canada on Wednesday embraced the 2011 industry standard, called CPC-1232, but the railroad association has recently called for the adoption of an even more robust tank car design.
On Tuesday, Robert Fronczak, the association’s assistant vice president for hazardous materials, told the NTSB that the CPC-1232 cars, while an improvment, were still not adequate for crude oil service.
In a statement Wednesday, Ed Hamberger, the association’s president and CEO, called Canada’s timeline “aggressive” and said, “We are confident that the industry will do all it can to meet it.”