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Letter to the Editor – US Dept. of Transportation – 1-20-2016

Dear Carlton DeWitt,

In your community and in so many others across the country, there is continued interest and concern about the transport of crude oil by rail.

We wanted to be in touch with you and your colleagues at the Glenwood City Tribune Press Reporter because we know this is an issue that you care about, and that your community cares about.

As you and your readers know, over the last six years the amount of crude oil being transported by rail has increased approximately 5,000 percent—more than ever before in our nation’s history. This significant increase has affected communities along rail lines in many ways: from increased traffic at grade crossings to concerns about leaks, spills, potential derailments or other incidents.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and our agencies in particular – the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Agency (PHMSA) – are deeply committed to doing all that we can to improve transportation safety. We want to take the opportunity of this letter to let you, and the people of your community know what DOT has done—and is doing—to ensure the safe transport of this commodity.

Last summer, the DOT released a risked-based, final rule that requires products like Bakken crude to be transported in much stronger tank cars that are less likely to puncture, and more likely to survive a derailment and a fire. This new tank car, referred to as the DOT117, also has safety enhancements to prevent and limit damage to valves and shields on the front and back of the tank car. These enhancements reduce the risk of punctures. Any tank car manufactured after October 2015 is required to meet these standards. The final rule requires that the least-safe tank cars currently in use be replaced or brought up to the new DOT117 standards by 2018. Newer tank cars that have more safety features are required to be upgraded on a risk-based schedule.

The final rule also required a new, more efficient braking system for trains transporting crude. The braking system, referred to as Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brakes, reduces stopping distances, decreases the number of tank cars likely to leave the tracks in an incident, and helps to decrease the likely severity of a derailment. The new braking system has to be integrated in the coming years as well.

In addition to new tank cars and a new braking system, the final rule also reduces speed limits for crude trains, and requires operators to take additional steps to ensure they are properly classifying flammable liquids like crude oil and ethanol before shipping.

Although this new rule is critical to increase safety and reduce risk, we are always looking for other ways to increase safety. We work especially closely with local law enforcement, emergency responders and hazardous materials professionals to share information and support their efforts to prepare for and respond to incidents involving hazardous materials. We introduced crude-by-rail routing software that allows emergency responders to input the identification number of a particular rail car and immediately determine whether the car is loaded or empty. Earlier this year, we also released new training materials for emergency responders that combine best practices, lessons learned and the latest information on responding to derailments involving crude oil and other hazardous materials. This off-the-shelf training is available online and can be used anywhere throughout the country.

DOT also provides millions of dollars in grants to support training for emergency responders and hazardous materials professionals. Last year, we awarded an additional $5.9 million dollars in grant funding that will be used to train more than 25,000 additional emergency responders, including volunteer firefighters in rural areas of the country. The FAST Act Congress just passed also creates a new competitive grant program – Community Safety Grants – that will allow nonprofit organizations to provide outreach and training programs to help communities prepare for and respond to incidents involving hazardous materials, and training for State and local hazardous materials professionals who enforce hazardous materials safety regulations.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t more to do, or more actions to take. Because there can be multiple factors that impact railroad safety and contribute to a derailment, constant vigilance, a comprehensive approach to safety and openness to the use of new technology is critical to the success of our safety mission. That’s why DOT has started the process to establish rail-wear standards, as well as pushing railroads to check that all of their employees that inspect for rail defects are properly trained. We are also urging the industry to do more: speed up the manufacturing and integration of DOT117 tank cars and harness technology and data to find potential problems before there is an accident.

Safety is our mission and highest priority. Our agencies will continue to do all we can to improve safety, by improving transparency.


Sarah Feinberg
Administrator Federal Railroad Administration , U.S. Department of Transportation

Marie Therese Dominguez, Administrator Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation