Thursday, January 15, 2009

PIH Tank Car Final Rule

As I noted earlier this week, PHMSA published their final rule on safety standards for PIH rail cars. This rule is based on the NPRM that was published in the Federal Register in April of last year, but it was significantly influenced by a pair of petitions for the establishment of an interim rule. Those petitions were reported in a single publication in the Federal Register in July. Conflicting PIH Rail Car Designs The reason for the petitions, one by the Fertilizer Institute and the other a joint filing by a number of chemical and railroad industry groups, was that in the April NPRM proposed that PIH chemicals would only be able to be shipped in rail cars that passed a rigorous new performance standard. While PHMSA proposed to give industry six years to convert their PIH fleets to the new cars, there was no current rail car design that could meet the proposed standard. In fact, the consensus in the industry was that there would not be a railcar available within the six year time frame that could meet the standard. What the petitioners asked for was for PHMSA to approve an interim rail car design that could be used to replace out-of-date or damaged rail cars until the new design did become available. The design proposed by the petitioners was an incremental improvement in safety over the current PIH rail car fleet. They also wanted PHMSA to allow them to use the replacement cars for a reasonable useful life after the enhanced-performance rail car was introduced. Instead of publishing an interim rule approving the intermediate PIH rail car design, PHMSA published this final rule establishing the requirement to use the interim design. They acknowledged that they were not sure when the enhanced performance car would be available, so they left requiring its use for a later rule making effort. Interim Rail Car Design PHMSA made some modifications to the design requirements for interim rail car design. The discussion of the engineering details of the new rail car design is much too complex to go into here in this blog (translation: I’m not sure I understood everything that I read). Essentially what PHMSA did was to require a thicker shell/jacket on the tank and a full head shield to reduce the risk of puncture in derailments and collisions. Based on recommendations from the railroad community, they also required additional protection for top fittings and nozzles to reduce the potential for leaks in a roll over situation. Since thicker shells and head shields would weigh more than current cars, PHMSA also increased the weight limit for these interim rail cars to 286,000 lbs. They firmly required that any additional weight over the current limit could not allow for product weight in the rail car over the current limit. This was done to stop the increased car weight from reducing the shipping capacity of the railcars. They felt that the increase in traffic from less weight per shipment would inherently increase the risk of accident and release. PHMSA is not requiring that this interim design be used in a wholesale replacement of the current fleet. They feel that the enhanced design will be significantly safer (when it is finally introduced) than even this interim design. PHMSA is making it clear that they only want this interim design to be used to replace out-of-date rail cars or rail cars damaged beyond reasonable repair or to increase fleet capacity. They want the bulk of the current fleet to be replaced by the enhanced rail car. Speed Limit Changes In the NPRM PHMSA proposed that all trains carrying current design rail cars containing PIH chemicals would be limited to a top speed of 50 mph. The enhanced rail cars would not require the same speed limit. Additionally, PHMSA proposed a further reduction in the speed limit to 30 mph on any ‘dark territory’, track without a signal system capable of warning of approaching trains. This lower speed limit was based on some theoretical work done by the NTSB that suggested a lower risk of shell puncture in a collision with a relative closing rate of less than 50 mph. Railroad commentors on the NPRM universally objected to this lower speed limit. They claimed that the schedule disruptions would lead to railroad holding PIH shipments until they could put together a ‘poison train’. They noted that this would significantly decrease PIH security and increase the risk that an accident involving such a compiled train would result in leaks of multiple PIH chemicals and exacerbating an already bad situation. PHMSA did implement the 50 mph speed limit in this rule, but decided not to require the 30 mph dark territory speed limit. They noted that there were some questions about the theoretical underpinnings of that requirement. Additionally, when the requirement was proposed it was being considered for a limited amount of time. With the interim rail car standard being adopted the time limit would be greatly extended. PHMSA also noted that there some other means of reducing the risk of collisions in dark territory had become available since the NPRM was published. They noted that DOT had recently been given authority (granted in 49 U.S.C. 20502), to require implementation of “supportable risk reduction measures, including the installation of signal and train control systems” (74 FR 1781). They also claim that the recently published hazmat rail routing rule would provide “a useful framework for better targeting risk reduction strategies” (74 FR 1781) presumably by re-routing around dark territory.
Blogger’s Note: This is certainly not my idea. I almost choked when I read this. Anyone that has read this blog for long realizes that I do not believe that the hazmat routing rule will result in many changes in rail route selection. In my not so humble opinion, re-routing around dark territory is even more unlikely than re-routing around urban areas.
Moving Forward PHMSA maintains that they will continue to move forward in working with the industry to develop, test and field the enhanced PIH rail car that they described in the NPRM. That standard, if realized, would be an order of magnitude increase in the safety of PIH transportation. Meanwhile, the interim standard rail car described in this rule is a positive step forward in the same direction.

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