New Federal Railroad Rules Aim to Improve Response to Derailments

But a 12-hour response window and no apparent path to coordinate with local first responders spark a concern that communication will still be lacking and response too slow.

by Jim McKay / February 28, 2019

A new federal rule announced by Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao proposes to make safer the transport of energy products via railroad.

The rule calls for equipment and crews to be ready for dispatch and use following an oil train derailment that causes a fire. But some of the requirements of the rule and what’s not in the rule have sources concerned about its efficacy.

The regulation calls for equipment and crews to respond within a 12-hour period, which for various reasons, is a long time to respond to a large oil spill and/or resulting fire. Also, there is concern about communication with local first responder agencies that may be responding to a derailment.

The document says that the railroads will work with the states in administering the rules, notifying appropriate state-designated entities “who share information with local authorities upon their request,” but rail safety consultant Keith Millhouse said that isn’t very clear direction and he worries about a lack of coordination.  

“The concern is that will it trickle down to communities and counties that have to deal with this, and it’s not clear to me from the rule how that has to happen,” Millhouse said. “One of the things we see in real accidents a lot of times is a failure of communications across the spectrum, whether it’s vertical or horizontal.”

Millhouse explained that vertical means the state talking with locals and horizontal means railroad entities such as one that works on railroad maintenance and another that presides over railroad operations.

Attemps to reach to reach someone at the Department of Transportation were unsuccessful.

“Railroads have safety personnel who will be dealing with preparation and materials, but they need the ability to have people with a trained background and experience in local government to facilitate discussions about what needs to be done on the local level,” Millhouse said.

Part of the concern is the 12-hour response period called for in the rule. That is a long time to let a fire burn, and coordination with local first responders could play a role in a quicker response. The volatility of the oil varies also and Bakken crude, for example, is especially flammable and explosive.

It’s pretty critical to with [a fire] in a timely manner if you’re going to protect other cars and be able to knock it down,” said Bob Chipkevich, a former director of railroad, pipeline and hazardous materials investigations for the National Transportation Safety Board. “Once you get down to a certain period of time, you get a certain amount of heat on those cars and you almost have to back off.”

Chipkevich said that with the 12-hour response time, it’s critical to ensure that local emergency response agencies become a partner with the railroads when developing plans.

Millhouse said it would be prudent for the railroads to reach out through the states and tribal entities, to local first responder communities, who will have boots on the ground, for local response preparation information.

Chipkevich also wondered why the plan didn’t include Canada, which has had two major spills recently and said that more emphasis must be placed on preventing these accidents in the first place. “A lot of these derailments with oil trains involved track conditions. They’ve made a move to improve the tank car [with newer, safer designed cars] but time will tell if those cars have been improved enough.”