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Oil refinery group: Safety measures need to go beyond rail car design

Fixing cars akin to calling for indestructible planes to improve air safety, critic says.

By Daniel J. Graeber

WASHINGTON, May 1 (UPI) -- A push to overhaul rail car designs to ensure the safe transport of crude oil is a narrow-minded approach, a U.S. refinery group said.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx hosted Canadian Transport Minister Lisa Raitt in Washington to announce new standards for "stronger, safer rail tank cars" carrying flammable liquids like crude oil through North America.

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North American crude oil production has increased to the point that there's not enough pipeline infrastructure to handle deliveries. That leaves energy companies to rely more on rail as an alternate transit method and, with that, comes more derailments involving trains carrying oil.

Raitt announced new regulations last year aimed at increasing safety on the Canadian rail system. The measure from regulator Transport Canada started with an order to remove around 5,000 tanker cars designated DOT-111 from service right away.

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DOT-111 cars were involved in a series of oil-train incidents in both the United States and Canada, including a deadly 2013 crash in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. A March derailment of a CSX train carrying crude oil through West Virginia involved newer CPC-1232 model rail cars.

A February briefing from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration found the CPC-1232 was "marginally" better than older cars.

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The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers group sent a letter to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board calling for what it said was a holistic approach to oil-train safety. The AFPM points to industry data that says that, on average, three derailments per day occur not because of car design, but because of poor track integrity and human error.

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AFPM President Charles Drevna said a culture of safety should extend beyond a single aspect of the rail industry.

"When making safety recommendations for air transport, the NTSB doesn't recommend that the FAA require indestructible planes," he said. "Instead, the focus is on preventing errors like midair collisions, runway incursions and pilot error."

The American Petroleum Institute, which represents the business interests of the oil and gas sector, said its review of a federal report on rail found kinetic energy built up during a derailment may play a greater role than cargo in any detonations.

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From the rail industry itself, BNSF Railway in April announced it will require trains hauling crude oil to reduce their speeds in communities with more than 100,000 residents and work to remove all rail cars designated DOT-111 from service within a year and phase in newer CPC-1232 models.

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The NTSB said older rails classified as DOT-111 may rupture too quickly when exposed to fires associated with derailments. The safety regulator added that it can't "wait a decade" for safer rail cars while crude oil delivery by rail increases at an exponential rate.

The Association of American Railroads said it looked forward to federal rules that would address concerns at the heart of the safety mitigation effort.

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