Federal Railroad Administration to Issue Additional Standards to Prevent Oil Train Derailments

UPDATE (Oct. 9, 2015): The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is expected to release new standards today that address track inspection and maintenance. This follows the administration’s eight-month investigation into the February oil train derailment in West Virginia, which found that broken rail caused the derailment.

Broken rails account for approximately 15 percent of train derailments – more than any other cause. Yet railroad companies are failing to identify and fix problems. In fact, CSX – the company that owned the track where February’s derailment occurred – identified issues with the section of track in the weeks preceding the accident but failed to take action.

The new standards will require railroad companies to fix rail issues or slow trains when crossing sections with safety issues. 

UPDATE (May 1, 2015): The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) released their final rule today on crude-by-rail safeguards. These rules will apply to trains carrying certain amounts of flammable liquids, including Bakken crude oil and other flammable substances like ethanol.

The rule requires all tank cars constructed after Oct. 1, 2015 to have shells that are at least 9/16th of an inch thick. Older cars that do not meet this standard must be retrofitted within the next two to 10 years, depending on car type.

The rule also requires rail companies to adopt advanced braking systems over the next six to eight years, including electronically controlled pneumatic systems (ECP) that allow train cars to brake simultaneously and decrease stopping distances. The rule sets an overall speed limit of 50 mph for oil trains and a 40 mph limit for trains passing through densely populated urban areas while carrying cars not yet meeting the new tank car standards.

Unfortunately, the rule does not require railroad companies to notify state and local officials when they are moving crude and other hazardous materials through their jurisdictions. Instead, state and local decision makers must contact railroads to ask for routing information, and the companies are required to provide officials with the industry contact person who can address their questions. This is an unnecessarily roundabout way to disclose crucial information to those charged with protecting residents and businesses from health hazards and destruction in the event of an oil train derailment or explosion.

A bill introduced yesterday by seven Senate Democrats seeks to eliminate this communication gap and grant much-needed resources to local emergency response teams. It would require railroad companies to provide real-time data on train movements and would also raise revenue for advanced training on responding to oil train accidents. The bill would also speed up the phase-out of older, more dangerous tank car models. 

UPDATE (Mar. 25, 2015): Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) introduced legislation today that would create stronger crude-by-rail safeguards than those currently under review by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Among other things, the Cantwell-Baldwin bill would require the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to limit the volatile gases in crude oil that is transported by rail. The PHMSA and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) rules currently under review require thicker tank car shells but do not regulate the crude itself, which is highly volatile and can explode during accidents. 

The Cantwell-Baldwin bill would also ban certain classes of older tank cars, immediately removing 37,700 unsafe cars from use. It requires railroad companies to alert state and local emergency response officials when moving crude through communities and significantly increases fines for violations.  


Original post from 2-18-2015

A 300-Foot High Fireball from an Exploding Bakken Oil Train: When Will New Rail Safety Standards Be Approved?

On Presidents' Day, a train carrying volatile crude oil derailed in Fayette County, West Virginia, igniting several railcars and creating a fireball 300 feet high. While no one was seriously injured, the incident is a stark reminder of the need for stronger safeguards to protect communities near the tracks that transport crude oil.

A Disturbing Track Record

The derailed train was carrying crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to a refinery in Yorktown, Virginia. Bakken crude is highly volatile, and a derailment or other incident can cause massive explosions and fires. These trains routinely cross thousands of miles, passing through numerous towns and cities, including heavily populated downtown areas.

The Feb. 16 incident occurred about 30 miles southeast of Charleston, West Virginia. At least a dozen of the 109 cars derailed, setting fire to a house and causing more than 200 people to evacuate. One train car reportedly fell into the Kanawha River, polluting it with crude oil and igniting a fire on the surface of the water. Local authorities near the scene of the accident shut off river water intake valves and are testing municipal water for contamination. 

We’ve seen other major accidents in several locations in just the past two years. Casselton, North Dakota experienced two derailments in less than a year, the most recent one occurring in November 2014. A July 2013 derailment in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec killed 47 people and destroyed much of the town. And in 2014 alone, oil trains caused more than 140 spills.

Such scenes are becoming more likely as shipments of crude oil by rail increase. According to the nonprofit ForestEthics, oil train traffic has increased by 4,000 percent over the past five years. While some companies are shipping this oil in newer, supposedly safer railcars, the majority of trains still use outdated cars with serious safety flaws.

States Creating New Safeguards to Prevent Rail Explosions in the Face of Federal Inaction

Some states are taking action to improve the safety of crude oil trains:

  • In December 2014, the North Dakota Industrial Commission issued a rule designed to reduce the volatility of Bakken crude being shipped out of state by rail. Beginning April 1 of this year, well operators will have to filter out volatile gases and lower the vapor pressure in tanker cars (to 13.7 pounds per square inch (psi) or less). But critics note that the 2013 Quebec derailment involved crude oil cars with a vapor pressure lower than this standard (less than 10 psi) and argue these standards are not tough enough.

  • In August 2014, California passed legislation requiring railroad companies to alert state emergency response officials about the movement of crude oil trains and to create emergency response plans. These rules apply to trains carrying more than 1 million gallons of hazardous substances, including, but not limited to, Bakken crude. Current federal rules only require companies to alert state officials when carrying Bakken crude.

Unfortunately, states have limited authority to regulate rail companies. They cannot issue speed limits or require trains to avoid large urban areas. Stronger safeguards will only come through federal action. Two agencies within the U.S. Department of Transportation have pending rules on oil-carrying trains.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) proposed rules in August 2014 to improve crude transport safety. These upgraded standards would establish speed limits and require rail companies to create emergency response plans. They would also require the phase-out of older DOT 111 tank cars and require tank car shells to be at least 9/16th of an inch thick. (The tank cars in the West Virginia accident were newer models, voluntarily adopted by the industry and considered safer than older models. But their shells are only 7/16th of an inch thick, meaning they would have to be retrofitted under the new rules.)

The agencies have already received public comments on these proposals, and a final rule is under review at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.


While federal proposals are being finalized, existing oil train cars are accidents waiting to happen. But rail companies and oil companies don't have to wait. They can act now and start moving toward implementing the standards that federal agencies are working to complete.

And citizens in at-risk communities can do more, too. Check out this interactive map by ForestEthics to see if your community is near a rail line that carries oil. Then ask local officials what the emergency plan is in the event of an accident and encourage the White House to approve the new transportation rules as soon as possible.

back to Blog

great article, chad Edward hatten
serious concern
Great article, thank you for focusing on this. It is important to consider how under-resourced are the local emergency responders who have to deal with these accidents. They get limited information on shipments, too. Surely there is money somewhere from these high value shipments that can be used to create a more robust capacity for response. I would also like to note that if there are opportunities to reduce flammability by removing some of the gaseous components of the oil that companies shipping the crude can implement, this should be a focus as well.
good article, great post
What Should States And Cities Be Doing? “We can’t fix every problem or guarantee there will be no more accidents. But that's no reason to stay on the sidelines. We should get into the game. The state needs to work with the railroads and the feds, and invest in the safety of the rail system that is vital to our economy and runs through the heart of so many North Dakota communities. (The writer is chairman of the North Dakota Public Service Commission, Julie Fedorchak.)” Track failures are linked to 31 percent of all train accidents, and even though such incidents are becoming less common, prevention remains critical, said Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Mike Booth. It’s especially important with a 400 percent increase in more volatile Bakken crude oil being shipped out of the North Dakota region. Railroads are required by law to inspect and maintain their equipment in good repair, and the Federal Railroad Administration ensures that by auditing records and doing spot inspections, Booth said. Statistically, the probability of an oil train derailment is very low and lower than other forms of transportation. But the potential undesirable consequences are relatively high, including damage to human life, property and the environment. Environmental and economic impacts, however, were substantial. Recent reports have noted that the amount of oil spilled in 2013 alone from train derailments, at more than 1.1 million gallons, was greater than the total amount of oil spilled from 1975 to 2012. The Federal Railroad Administration enforces the health and safety regulations under which the railroads operate. But they have been more indulgent and less strict than they should be, given the increase in crude oil cargoes and their extreme volatility. Tell them to do their jobs, to protect the citizens, not just the railroad shareholders. Sign the petition at http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/enforce-railroad-health?source=s.fwd&r_by=1718159