Do you believe that our railways are dangerous? According to the Association of American Railroad (AAR), of the 228,000 DOT-111 (non-pressurized) tank cars, 92,000 are being used to move flammable liquids such as crude and ethanol around the U.S. In purely crude terms, this equated to approximately 425,000 carloads in 2013.
Although crude by rail has grown by more than 4000% in the last five years, the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) stats on reportable injuries (unaudited) cite 2013 as being the safest year on record. In a recent press release, the AAR noted that over $50 billion has been invested on improving the nation’s rail infrastructure in the last two years. Its website states that over 99% of shipments complete their journey without incident.
So why is public perception so negative? No doubt images of exploding tank cars make for great headlines. Similarly, there is a sustained bad taste for crude going back to the BP offshore catastrophe.
It therefore comes as no surprise that a basic internet search using any combination of the words “rail, oil or tank cars” results in negative captions. Communities have become acutely aware of what types of freights are being transported by rail, requesting that they be rerouted. This perceived alarm has people wondering where answers are going to come from, whether it is the government’s responsibility to enforce new regulations or whether the industry can be trusted to do so itself. While there have been numerous meetings between the two, the public-at-large has for the most part been kept in the dark, which only adds to the intrigue and anxiety.
Much to its constituent’s surprise, the AAR requested that the Department of Transportation (DOT) require all tank cars that transport flammable liquid adhere to newer, increased safety standards, including full height head shields, high-pressure relief valves and thermal protection with outer steel jackets.
Furthermore, new operating procedures and routes have also been identified to diminish the opportunity of accidents. Lower speed limits in certain urban areas, leveraged breaking technologies, increased training for emergency responders and increased track inspections also go a long way in eliminating human error.
Unfortunately, and in our opinion, one other important aspect of tank car safety has been omitted from these discussions. The illustration below highlights the six major areas of change as suggested by the AAR. In red is the manway, the principal cause of leakages. Although not a major concern in the event of derailments, the manway is responsible for over 50% of all non-accident releases (NARs). (See the video link below for a more in depth explanation of why they continue to fail and how this can be simply corrected).
Complying with the above suggestions could cost as much as $90,000 per car to modify, as well as reducing the overall loading capacity of the tank car. Of the 92,000 tank cars transporting flammable liquids, 78,000 predate the 2011 standards change. According to Michael Lutz, Vice President of Midstream Hess, the economics of imposing such a retrofit would add as much as a $1 per barrel/ $75,000 per shipment by crude. Other estimates calculate the additional cost at $2 per barrel.
A similar but less expensive ($30,000) and more forgiving (10 year grace period) suggestion comes from the Railway Supply Institute (RSI). In principle, they agree with much of the AAR. Their proposal omits the need for the thermal protection and outer steel jacket. They also suggest strengthening the undercarriage.
An alternative option is the construction of new pipelines, which are expensive and bring about their own issues of environmental and economic impact to the communities they run through.
Whether tank car owners can afford the approximately $5 billion to retrofit, or if it even makes financial sense for them to do so is being debated. After all, they will struggle to recoup the additional investment in lease fees when compared to the cost and rent of newly built cars. Similarly, without any form of grace period, the sudden and prolonged disruption and supply of tank cars would grind the shipment of U.S. produced crude to a halt.
Mandating two-person train crews and stricter operating procedures will help. The agreed reduction in speed from 50 to 40 mph in urban areas is estimated to improve safety by over 50%, so why not decrease the speed limit a little further? Some estimates believe that if speeds in those same areas were reduced to 25 mph, that the risk could all but be eliminated.
The public should feel reassured that safety is at the top of the government’s, the regulator’s and the industry’s list of concerns. More importantly, they should feel reassured that the media driven perception couldn’t be further from the reality (99% of shipments complete their journeys without incident).
In the case of manways, industry best practices are only as good as the equipment and tools available. It is unfortunate that regulators have chosen to ignore this area of concern. That is why the Parker Manway Nozzle Gasket is one response to halt this growing trend of NARs. Not only does it immediately resolve 95% of all manway related NAR issues, which is approximately 50% of all NARs, it also reduces loading times and costs by as much as 90%.
For more information visit Parker ISS and watch a short video below.
For more information on manway gaskets and railway safety, view the articles below: