New rules proposed for toxins in rail tank cars

WASHINGTON — The federal railroad agency on Monday proposed that rail cars carrying hazardous materials be replaced or reinforced, and that they travel at lower speeds in the wake of a series of accidents and near misses including a 2007 runaway through Las Vegas.

New safety rules would require tank cars carrying inhalable poisons such as chlorine and commercial-grade ammonia to be equipped with puncture-resistant shells able to withstand 25 mph side impacts and head-on collisions at 30 mph, more than double current safety speeds.

The upgrades proposed by the Federal Railroad Administration would require the replacement of the entire fleet of 15,300 rail tank cars over eight years. Most of the costs of $125,000 per car would be borne by chemical shippers.

The new trains carrying hazardous cargo would be restricted to traveling at 50 mph. Older trains not meeting the new requirements would have to slow to 30 mph as they travel through non-signaled territory, or “dark” areas that make up about half of the nation’s tracks, according to the railroad agency.

“This proposal is designed to significantly reduce the hazard of hauling hazardous materials by rail,” Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said in a statement.

The proposal comes on the heels of several deadly accidents, the agency said. A 2002 derailment and chemical spill in Minot, N.D., killed one man and injured hundreds. A 2004 derailment near Macdona, Texas, resulted in the deaths of three people, while a 2005 collision and chemical spill in Graniteville, S.C., killed nine people and forced thousands from their homes.

In Southern Nevada on Aug. 29, a tank car carrying 90 tons of liquid chlorine escaped the Union Pacific train yard in Arden and rolled 20 miles at speeds near 50 mph just west of the Strip and near urban neighborhoods before it was stopped in North Las Vegas.

The federal agency did not take the Las Vegas incident into consideration in forming the rule. Steve Kulm, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said the focus was on accidents that resulted in hazardous chemical spills.

Still, Kulm said of the Nevada runaway train, “If that tank car had derailed or impacted something, the proposed rule that we announced today is designed to have better ensured that the hazmat (hazardous material) would not have been released.”

The Institute for Security Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas reported in 2006 that a chlorine gas accident would be the most deadly disaster the state could face. Exposure to chlorine gas can cause lung damage or death.

An average railway tanker carrying chlorine gas has the potential to kill between 74,000 and 91,000 people if the hazardous substance is released in a populous area, according to the institute’s vulnerability assessment.

“The incident in Las Vegas just underscores how vulnerable we can be in urban areas with these major hazardous materials passing through in our backyard,” said Patricia Abbate of the Citizens for Rail Safety, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said the proposed regulations are a good first step but don’t go far enough. The government needs to invest more in training people who respond to chemical spills.

“These supposedly safe containers with scientific testing are not as safe as they say they are,” Goodman said. “There hasn’t been any money of significant nature given to the first responders for any hazard materials accident.”

The new proposal only deals with tank car integrity and does not include additional training for emergency responders.

After the Las Vegas incident, Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., convened a roundtable of elected leaders, first responders and railroad representatives to dissect the near-tragedy blamed on human error in setting track switches at Arden.

Porter “is pleased that the FRA is taking an aggressive stance at tank car safety,” spokesman Matt Leffingwell said.

Capitol Hill aides also said Union Pacific is working on in-house safeguards more directly as a result of the Las Vegas runaway.

The proposed federal rules would require that both the outer tank shell and the inner tank holding the hazardous cargo will get shielding and strength improvements. The head ends would also be strengthened to be more energy absorbent.

The Federal Railroad Administration expects the new or reinforced tank cars traveling at slower speeds to increase by 500 percent the amount of energy a tank car could absorb before a catastrophic failure would happen.

Cars manufactured before 1989 made of non-normalized steel are more prone to failure and will be taken out of service within five years, according to the railroad agency.

The eight-year timetable for upgrades is too slow for some who would like to see the safety regulations implemented more quickly.

“It’s concerning that in these next eight years hazardous materials are being transported in containers that do not meet these specs,” Abbate said.

The railroad administration estimates the proposal will cost the industry $350 million over a 30-year period but will also save $665 million by reducing damage to property and the environment, casualties, litigation and other factors.

The number of incidents involving hazardous materials jumped to 43 last year from 28 in 2006, government data show.

The final rule will be crafted after the public comment period closes on May 30, Kulm said. He said Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Boardman would like to see the new rule finalized later this year.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau reporter Sara Spivey at or (202) 783-1760.

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