In coming weeks the U.S. Dept. of Transportation  is expected to outline a comprehensive plan to ensure the safe transportation of oil through our towns and cities and it's expected to cover volatile issues such as tank car design, speed and routing.

To be clear, the feds are mediating an agreement between the oil producers who are represented by the American Petroleum Institute (API), and, the Association of American Railroads (AAR).  Interestingly enough, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers Association, representing the oil refineries (which own or lease most of the rail tank cars used to transport crude oil) are on the outside looking in. And, at least one railroad believes the less you know, the better...

According to Downstreamtoday.com, a site that covers oil industry trends and logistics, the API and AAR were said to have agreed on a schedule for retiring older tank cars and a toughened  design for newer cars that carry most of the fuel out of North Dakota’s Bakken shale oil fields.  The re-design is needed, safety experts contend, because the Bakken crude has greater volatility making it more flammable. 

The deal would order older tank cars, model DOT-111, off the tracks or into workshops for safety upgrades and there are approximately 94,000 DOT-111s currently in operation according to the Railway Supply Institute.  Approximately 39,000 are used to carry crude, less than one-third of which are built to a tougher safety standard that was implemented in 2011. The key difference is the thickness of the car’s shell.

For new tank cars, rail operators and tank car manufacturers supported shell thickness of 9/16 of an inch; while the oil industry maintained that 7/16 is sufficient. AAR and API reportedly agreed to split the difference and settle on a half-inch thickness for tank cars.

U.S. DOT proposed a set of regulations it announced last Wednesday which begins a 60-day public comment period.   It proposes a two-year phase out of the older tank cars for freight trains carrying crude oil and also calls for enhanced braking equipment and stricter standards for a new generation of tank cars.

The proposal defines a “high-hazard flammable train” as a freight train carrying 20 or more tankers loaded with flammable crude oil or ethanol.   Crude oil and ethanol scheduled for freight train transport would be subjected to sampling to determine their flammability.

High-hazzard trains would have to comply with certain speed restrictions.  The department proposed three options for a 40-mph speed limit that could apply as follows: A) in all areas; B) in high-threat urban areas; or C) only in areas with at least 100,000 people.

But believe it or not, Norfolk Southern, a rail company based in Norfolk, VA has filed a lawsuit against the state of Maryland to block media from learning details about crude oil shipments. Is there something they want to hide?

At the same time, communities from New York to Seattle have reason to watch closely.    

Just weeks ago, CSX Transportation disclosed to the state of New York that 15 to 30 trains, each carrying at least 1 million gallons of Bakken crude, pass through the Hudson Valley each week, south from Albany, through Rockland County to refineries in New Jersey.

Seattle’s Post-Intelligencer reported that North Dakota oil will soon “flow through Seattle in a massive way” if new plans for shipments to the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point  succeed.  The oil would be destined for four refineries and travel through Puget Sound population centers such as Seattle, Tacoma, Edmonds, Marysville and Bellingham WA.

It’s all a matter of self-preservation.  Let’s hope we get this right.