Canada’s Oil Train Tragedy Triggers Calls for Legislation as U.S. Changes Rules

Canada’s Oil Train Tragedy Triggers Calls for Legislation as U.S. Changes Rules

By John D. Boyd, CQ Roll Call

Lawmakers are pressing for legislation to end the use of one-person railroad crews carrying hazardous materials after the Federal Railroad Administration has taken steps to toughen safety regulations on hauling flammable liquids such as crude oil and ethanol.

The legislative calls and regulatory action come in the wake of an oil train disaster in Quebec last month that left 47 dead or missing.

While the Federal Railroad Administration hinted that more rule changes may be coming, Reps. Michael H. Michaud and Chellie Pingree, both Maine Democrats, asked federal regulators to launch a full review of the railway infrastructure for oil shipments in their state.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who chairs the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, called on the Government Accountability Office to study transportation safety issues stemming from the continent’s surging oil and natural gas output.

Rockefeller wrote that the crash of the runaway train loaded with tank cars filled with North Dakota crude at Lac-Megantic, Quebec, early on July 6, “illustrated the potential deadly consequences of what can happen if something goes wrong during transport of these products.”

The train was operated by Maine-based regional carrier Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, and had come loose from where it was parked the night before, well after its single operator headed for a layover in the town not far from the Maine border. It was on a route that would have gone across Maine to reach a New Brunswick refinery, but the catastrophic accident obliterated part of downtown Lac-Megantic and became Canada’s deadliest railway accident since 1864.

Braked and Locked

The FRA issued last week a set of emergency orders for handling hazmat loads — flammables such as oil and ethanol, plus toxic chemical gases — requiring freight railroads never to leave them unattended either on main tracks or sidings outside of train yards, until plans are in place to ensure cargo safety in such circumstances. It also mandated that parked locomotives be locked. It also ordered carriers to make sure qualified railroad workers check back in on train equipment visited by an emergency responder, making sure it is braked properly before leaving it unattended.

The equipment follow-up to any emergency responder visit is to cover one of the events in the sequence leading to the Lac-Megantic disaster, when a fire broke out on a locomotive of the oil train after the engineer had left for his layover, triggering a local fire department response. Sometime after that the train came loose from its brakes and headed toward its deadly crash.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx noted that Canada’s probe of its tragedy is still underway but the FRA was taking these initial emergency steps “to help prevent a similar incident from occurring in the United States.”

The Transportation Department’s emergency order was not as aggressive as one Transport Canada issued on July 23. Canada’s order not only dealt with braking and making sure hazmat loads are never left unattended, but also required railroads to operate all hazmat trains with at least two-person crews.

Many major railroads now use two-person crews for long-haul trips, but one-person train operations are also common in some lanes and among smaller rail lines. In addition, Canada ordered carriers to make sure train-controlling locomotives could not be broken into.

The same day of the FRA’s emergency order, Reps. Michaud and Pingree announced they were introducing their “Safe Freight Act” under which Congress would require freight trains to operate with at least two-person crews.

“Trains can be a mile or more long and carry volatile shipments such as ethanol and oil,” said Michaud. “With a single-person crew, what if the operator suffers a heart attack or another health-related problem? What if there is an accident and the operator is unable to perform his or her duties?”

Pingree called the proposal a “good first step” toward addressing some rail safety issues. “With freight trains’ potentially hazardous cargo and sheer size, it makes sense on many levels to have at least two people on a crew at all times,” she said. “Having only one person onboard who is responsible for a train’s safe operation simply allows too much room for errors to go uncorrected.”

Meanwhile, U.S. regulators suggest that tougher rail rules may be coming at the agency level. The FRA has called an emergency meeting of industry, labor and government officials on its Railroad Safety Advisory Committee to discuss the Lac-Megantic implications, and the agency says using crews of at least two people in locomotive cabs may boost safety for freight and passenger trains alike.

Separately, the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is looking into the type of tank car widely used for North American oil and ethanol loads, and could order up equipment changes.

Such changes can add supply chain costs to shipping oil, ethanol and chemical fertilizer gases across the continent, as the emphasis shifts from cutting rail transportation costs to boosting cargo safety. Freight rates can rise as railroads have employees constantly watch their parked hazmat trains, or add a second crew member where only one has operated a train up to now.

At the Association of American Railroads, President Edward R. Hamberger said carriers have long experience moving hazmat loads and often use procedures that go beyond federal safety regulations.

“We appreciate the steps the FRA has taken to help advance the safety of moving hazardous materials via rail,” he said. “Railroads will implement what has been issued by the FRA … and examine what additional steps might be appropriate to ensure rail continues to be one of the safest ways to move hazardous materials.”