Crude oil shipments, tanker punctures top of agenda at rail talks

Experts from Canada's rail industry are meeting in Ottawa to discuss upgrades to the safety and crash-worthiness of DOT-111 rail tankers involved in a string of recent explosive derailments of trains carrying crude oil.

Safety authorities in Canada, U.S. have called for upgrades to older rail tankers for years

Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Que., on July 6, 2013. DOT-111 tanker cars, older models of which are known to puncture or leak during crashes, were involved in the crash. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Experts from Canada's rail industry meet in Ottawa on Monday to discuss how to make North America's fleet of DOT-111 rail tankers safer following a string of recent derailments and explosions involving crude oil.

The Canadian Transportation Research Forum (CTRF) is hosting a meeting of representatives of Canada’s rail companies, government regulators, the Department of National Defence and even the United States Embassy to examine, among other items, the risks of growing rail shipments of crude by 111 rail tank cars.

The DOT-111 is the most common model of rail tanker used to haul all kinds of liquids, from benign cargo such as canola oil, to dangerous flammable liquids, including crude oil, liquid petroleum and ethanol. It has only a single steel hull and is not pressurized, unlike sturdier DOT-112 and -114 models used to transport more volatile liquids and gasses such as propane and methane.

Single-hull design DOT-111 tank cars, like these that were torn open in a crash, need upgrades, according to a 2012 U.S. National Transportation Safety Board report. (NTSB)

Of the DOT-111s ​currently used to haul crude oil and other flammable materials, roughly 50,000 were built before 2011 and are known to puncture or leak during crashes, according to figures compiled by rail consultant Malcolm Cairns.


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That's what happened in Lac-Mégantic, Que., last summer when a runaway train exploded and engulfed the town's downtown, killing 47 people, and it's what appears to have happened in last week’s explosions along a CN line near Plaster Rock, N.B., and on Dec. 30 in a massive explosion close to the oil fields of North Dakota.

"I believe it was the Lac-Mé​gantic accident and terrible tragedy that put a spur behind regulators to get moving," Cairns told CBC News in an interview.

Cairns, now a consultant after a career with both Transport Canada and Canadian Pacific Railway (CP), has prepared a research paper on DOT-111 tank cars detailing years of warnings that tops the agenda of today's CTRF meeting.

On Friday, Transport Canada announced plans for new regulations to require manufacturers of new 111s to use thicker steel, improved valves and to install "head shields" at ends of the rail cars to prevent punctures. But the proposed regulation only re-enforces building standards already practised in the United States and will not require upgrades to the existing fleet or take out of service any of the 50,000 older tankers used every day to carry crude oil and other flammable goods across the continent.

Thicker steel, more crash-worthy tankers needed

"We've been advocating for further improvements to many of these 111s," lead Transportation Safety Board investigator Don Ross told a news conference in Lac-Mégantic in July 2013 just days after a runaway train crashed and engulfed the downtown in flames.

"When you take very large volumes of petroleum products like in this case, everyone sees the damage that was caused," Ross said.

Emergency crews work at the site of the train derailment and fire in Lac-Mégantic​, Que., which killed 47 people and destroyed the town's core. (Ryan Remiorz, Pool/Associated Press)

Safety officials in Canada and the U.S. have repeatedly conducted investigations into derailments, crashes and punctures of DOT-111s throughout the 1990s and 2000s. For example, in January 1994 near Westree, Ont., 100 kilometres northwest of Sudbury, 20 freight cars piled up after a CN train hit a faulty stretch of track, triggering the emergency brakes.

Three loaded DOT-111 tank cars spilled vinyl acetate and methanol into a swampy area. While the rail itself was at fault, the TSB cited years of deficiencies with the tankers and recommended that industry stop using 111s to ship all manner of dangerous goods.

The TSB in Canada and National Transportation Safety Board in the U.S. have both recommended tougher standards for heavier-gauge steel, more durable valves to replace ones known to snap off during collisions, and installation of protective "head shields" on ends of tank cars.

$1B price tag to retrofit 50,000 older tankers

According to Cairns, of the roughly 320,000 tanker cars rolling on rail lines across North America, around 265,000 are of the DOT-111 variety used to haul everything from flammable liquids such as crude oil, gasoline and ethanol to less dangerous goods such as canola oil.

In his CTRF paper "Rail Safety In Transporting Dangerous Goods in Canada," Cairns details how less than one per cent of DOT-111s are owned by rail companies. Most are owned by eight large North American leasing companies or the petrochemical industry.

In CN's view, tank car design is one of the most important systemic issues arising from the Lac-Mégantic accident.- Mark Hallman, CN spokesperson

He says there is no consensus between rail companies and the owners of the tank cars on what new standards should be applied or whether the existing fleet of approximately 50,000 older cars should be retrofitted — a massive undertaking that would take years and cost an estimated $1 billion.

"I think the biggest challenge will be what to do with the existing fleet," Cairns said, arguing in his research paper that the petrochemical industry and leasing companies that own the older rail cars are reluctant to pay for the upgrades.

Transport Canada said Friday that it will continue to work with the U.S. government and industry on potential additional regulations that could include "retrofitting, repurposing or retiring older tank cars in the North American fleet."

Rail industry, CN, CP support upgrades

"In CN's view, tank car design is one of the most important systemic issues arising from the Lac-Mégantic accident," CN spokesperson Mark Hallman told CBC News in an emailed statement.

CN and CP both say they support fixing the fleet of older crude oil tank cars, positions adopted by the Railway Association of Canada and by the Association of American Railroads (AAR). In November 2013, the AAR called on the U.S. Department of Transportation to require all tank cars used to transport flammable liquids to be retrofitted or phased out, and for new cars to be built to more stringent standards.

Transport Canada has not indicated when it will decide on what to do with the older 111 tankers.

Since the Lac-Mégantic tragedy, Canada's regulator has prohibited further use of one-man rail crews and issued directives for closer testing of crude oil shipments, requiring they be treated as higher-risk dangerous goods during transport.

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Dave Seglins

CBC Investigations

Dave Seglins is an investigative journalist whose recent work includes exposés on global ticket scalping, offshore tax avoidance and government surveillance. He covers a range of domestic and international issues, including rail safety, policing, government and corporate corruption.