REPOST: U.S. Steps Up Scrutiny of Freight Train Safety

Ways on how to ensure the safety of freight trains are currently being evaluated by officials from rail and petroleum industries. Read more from this New York Times article:

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After meeting with federal regulators on Thursday, officials from the rail and petroleum industries agreed to examine quick ways to improve the safety of freight trains carrying crude oil following a spate of fiery accidents in recent months.

Railroad companies will look into the possibility of rerouting oil convoys outside populated areas, or slowing down the trains to reduce the impact of an accident, among other things, said Anthony Foxx, the transportation secretary, who was host of the closed-door meeting in Washington.

The Obama administration is under mounting pressure to tackle safety concerns after recent episodes underscored the dangers of shipping large quantities of crude oil aboard unpressurized railcars. In the last seven months, there have been four major accidents involving crude oil trains, including one that derailed in North Dakota on Dec. 30 and forced the evacuation of hundreds of people.

Image Source: NYTimes.com

The danger was highlighted in July when a runway train in Canada destroyed the town of Lac-Mégantic, killing 47 people. A train carrying crude oil from the prolific Bakken region also derailed and exploded in Alabama in November, though no one was injured.

About 10 percent of the nation’s daily oil production is now shipped across the nation to refineries aboard trains that can measure more than one mile long, going through cities like Chicago, St. Louis and Seattle, as well as countless smaller communities.

The surge in production has far outpaced pipeline capacity — more than two-thirds of the Bakken production is transported by train — leaving both the rail industry as well as federal officials scrambling to tackle the hazards to public safety after the accidents.

“The industry, if they are motivated, can undertake preventative steps that will enhance the safety of the movement of these materials across the country,” Mr. Foxx said. He described the meeting in a conference call with reporters as a “call to action.”

But he declined to identify industry attendees, saying only that they included chief executives of major railroads, as well as representatives from the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry’s main lobby and trade group. Regulators from the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration also attended.

Officials stressed these were the first steps of a more comprehensive review of safety standards, with a particular focus on the type of tank cars used to carry the crude oil. But that review would be lengthy.

While that is underway, Mr. Foxx said, the rail industry would also work on new standards for tank cars within 30 days.

Mr. Foxx also said he would like to beef up safety inspections. He said there are about a million hazardous shipments transported by rail every day. The pipeline safety agency, for its part, has just 50 safety inspectors.

“We will continue assessing our own role from a regulatory standpoint on an ongoing basis,” he said. “But today the industry stepped up.”

Joseph C. Szabo, the federal rail agency’s administrator, said operators would re-evaluate crude oil movements in similar ways to those it undertakes when transporting highly toxic materials.

“Part of our expectations would be that there would be a heightened effort, upping the game, relative to operating practices, crack inspections, and all those other components that are part of a more thorough risk evaluation,” Mr. Szabo said in the conference call.

The accidents have also highlighted hazards with the kind of crude oil that comes out of the Bakken region. Because of the lack of pipeline infrastructure in that new oil producing region, crude oil is loaded on railcars that huge convoys consisting of 100 cars or more known as unit trains.

Safety experts have questioned whether the Bakken oil — a light, sweet grade that is easy to refine — is also more volatile and more prone to explode in an accident than other types of oil traditionally produced in the United States.

That question has led federal regulators to begin wholesale testing of Bakken oil as part of an effort to better classify and label shipments. This month, the Transportation Department issued a safety alert that confirmed the flammable nature of the oil and said more testing would be necessary to examine other factors like its gas contents or corrosiveness.

At the meeting, petroleum industry officials pledged they would share their own data about the oil. Officials with the pipeline safety agency, which is undertaking the tests, said the results would be available soon.

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About Dr. Ali Ghalambor

General Chairperson Dr. Ali Ghalambor will spearhead the 2012 SPE International Symposium and Exhibition on Formation Damage Control which aims to tackle industry issues concerning formation damage, production operations, and completion technologies. The symposium will be held at the Lafayette Hilton in Lafayette, Louisiana from the 15th to the 17th of February 2012. Internationally renowned for his expertise and remarkable contributions, Dr. Ali Ghalambor has worked with the finest universities and organizations such as the University of Louisiana, the Tenneco Oil Company, and the United Nations.
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