Forward Observations: Oil On the Tracks
Rick Carter | August 1, 2014
If railroad tank cars carrying oil or volatile chemicals play a role in your operation—or even if they pass close to your plant—the time has come to view them as the potential safety hazards they are. A long-expected proposal from the Department of Transportation last month addresses the safety issue with rules that would phase out tens of thousands of old-design, unpressurized tank cars that are considered inadequate to handle the increasing amounts of oil and chemicals they’re being tasked to carry. With the nation’s fracking boom, more oil than ever is traveling in the older (30-40 years old is not uncommon) cars called DOT-111s that are seen as too likely to puncture in an accident. Other issues the proposed rules address concern the need for updated braking systems and new regulations about permissible speeds for oil-car trains.
Details of the rules are expected by year’s end, after a period of public and industry comment. But the impetus for their acceptance is strong. Since 2008, 10 significant oil-train derailments have occurred in the U.S. and Canada. The worst of these remains the 2013 Lac-Megantic, Quebec, disaster that killed
According to an Associated Press report, oil shipments by rail are increasing dramatically, from a few thousand carloads a decade ago to 434,000 carloads last year. The government says the danger of the process is magnified by what it contends is the greater volatility of oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana. Oil producers have challenged this view, but may find it only a subplot to the larger issue of the need to establish new standards for oil-car construction and operation.
Interestingly, the topic of railroad oil-car safety arose at this year’s IR/INFO event, an annual conference for professional thermographers. One presenter told how, out of curiosity, he pointed his infrared camera at the bearing boxes of a passing oil-car train. He was alarmed to see images that showed excessive levels of temperature differences in the bearing boxes of most cars—a sure sign of potential bearing failure, as any maintenance professional knows. Could this be a contributing factor to oil-car safety?
The IR/INFO presenter looked into that question and suggested the possibility that the cars are not only outdated (and, for various reasons, are not being replaced fast enough), but that routine maintenance is lacking. While his observation does not constitute damning proof, it suggests that if overheated bearings were the norm on the train he imaged, they probably are on others—and could be a factor in some of the accidents that have caught the government’s attention.
For the railroads, the non-stop (and growing) flow of oil in North America presents an extraordinary business opportunity. In the absence of adequate pipelines, tank cars are the only practical way to ship oil from remote areas to other parts of the continent. Naturally, the railroads are striving to meet this demand and get paid for the service. In doing so, however, they may have also created an untenable safety issue by running poorly maintained, outdated cars too long. It seems a good thing the DOT has taken the matter in hand.
How does this affect you? To my original point, it has to do with your plant’s proximity to passing oil-tank cars. Your safety team may have a plan for dealing with a derailment or oil/chemical spill from trains that run on—or near—plant property. If not, it’s time to put one in place. A review of recent accidents and the enormous devastation they have caused should be enough to convince anyone of the need.