Department of Transportation Proposes New Rail Safety Standards

August 1, 2014

By Leslie Wollack

Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation released the long awaited proposed rule setting new standards for transporting oil by rail following a year's worth of disasters and near disasters.

Both this proposal and a Canadian transportation regulation issued earlier this year would strengthen tank car designs and force shippers to test hazardous materials before shipping.

The Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) in coordination with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), is proposing: (1) new operational requirements for certain trains transporting a large volume of Class 3 flammable liquids; (2) improvements in tank car standards; and (3) revision of the general requirements for offerors to ensure proper classification and characterization of mined gases and liquids. The proposed requirements are "designed to lessen the frequency and consequences of train accidents/incidents (train accidents) involving certain trains transporting a large volume of flammable liquids," according to the rule.

The growing reliance on trains to transport large volumes of flammable liquids poses a significant risk to life, property, and the environment. These significant risks have been highlighted by the recent instances of trains carrying crude oil that derailed in Casselton, North Dakota; Aliceville, Alabama; and Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada.

The proposed changes also address National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) safety recommendations on the accurate classification and characterization of such commodities, enhanced tank car construction, and rail routing.

Several NLC policy committees are collaborating on an update to NLC's National Municipal Policy to address the concerns of communities impacted by increased shipments of hazardous materials, and NLC will file comments on aspects of the proposed rules impacting local governments.