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Feds tout efforts to improve rail safety with better cars

 

Posted 1/26/16 (Tue)

By Kevin Killough
Oil production in the state remains fairly constant, but the amount of oil traveling by rail has fallen considerably.
Despite this, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Agency are continuing efforts to address the safety of transporting crude by rail.
In a letter last week, the two agencies outlined a list of past initiatives and ongoing efforts to improve safety.
The communications come at a time when transport by rail in North Dakota is rapidly declining. According to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority, the amount of crude transported by rail fell from over 800,000 barrels a day in Feb. 2015 to just over 500,000 the following November. 
Matt Lehner, FRA public affairs officer, said the letter was released to coincide with the appointments of new department heads for the two agencies, both of which were confirmed late last year. 
Some of the more ambitious safety initiatives were enacted last summer, the letter stated. One rule requires new tank cars, referred to as the DOT117, which limit damage to valves and shields on the front and back of the tank car, as well as reducing puncturing, in the event of an accident. 
Any car manufactured after Oct. 2015 is required to meet these standards, and the least-safe tank cars currently in use must be replaced or meet the new standards by 2018. 
The federal government also required rail companies to implement improved braking systems. The Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brakes reduce stopping distances, decrease the number of tank cars likely to leave the tracks in an incident, and help to decrease the likely severity of a derailment. 
New restrictions on speeds through populated areas were also added.
The departments have also done more to provide local responders with the training and resources to deal with accidents. This included $5.9 million in grant funding for the training and 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. 
This year, Lehner said the department is moving forward on efforts to establish rail-wear standards. He said this follows an accident in West Virginia, in which 27 tank cars derailed. The accident spilled over 9,000 barrels of oil and forced the evacuation of about 1,100 residents.
A lengthy investigation determined rail flaws caused the accident and highlighted that a third of all rail accidents are caused by faulty tracks.