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THOMAS SIMPSON: Tank-car makers await government’s new standards

Thomas Simpson

WASHINGTON — Earlier this month, the Railway Supply Institute Committee on Tank Cars met with Anthony Foxx, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, to discuss how to lower the risk of crude-by-rail.

Our committee, whose members manufacture and lease the rail tank cars used to transport crude and ethanol, has been working for years to achieve stronger safety standards. It is no surprise to us that carloads for the delivery of crude-by-rail has spiked more than 4,000 percent since 2008, and that with this increased volume, there has been an increase in the number of accidents involving crude oil by rail.

That’s why more than three years ago, we voluntarily designed new, stronger tank cars, and we began building and are on track to deploy more than 55,000 of them by 2015 at a cost of more than $7 billion.

We’ve taken other steps as well, including petitioning the government to codify the tank car standards so that the industry could begin manufacturing and leasing these newer, more modern cars in earnest.

Just as important, we’ve been working with the railroads, which actually operate the trains, to institute other new measures that will ensure trains stay on the track.

We know that when trains stay on the track, we have a 99.9977 percent success rate in the safe delivery of hazardous materials by rail. Moreover, we know that rail is the only viable means to deliver the newfound crude oil resources in the Bakken formation to market.

Pipelines simply don’t exist, and trucks are far too dangerous.

But, that doesn’t mean we can’t be even safer. Unfortunately, several accidents in the past year have highlighted the need to accelerate the standards.

The industry and government should take a holistic approach to improving safety, which means railroad operating practices, more robust tank car standards and proper classification of material being carried.

In our meeting with Foxx and his staff, we were pleased to learn that crude-by-rail safety is among the top priorities for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration.

We used our time with the secretary to propose even stronger, science-based standards that will help mitigate potential effects of accidents. These include requiring additional safety technology for cars built and deployed in the future such as a metal jacket, full-height head shield and top fittings protection with added thermal insulation.

We also asked the DOT to let us modernize the existing fleet. To that end, we proposed limiting the addition of legacy cars that carry crude and ethanol.

Essentially, we don’t want to add cars to the crude-by-rail fleet that don’t have appropriate safety measures in place.

At the same time, we asked to prioritize the modifications to those cars that carry crude and ethanol — to add steel plating, stronger valves and other safety technology — so that the upgrades can be made where they are most needed.

Over the past 28 months, RSI and our members have been waiting on a government-issued standard that will spur investment in our sector and increase safety. The certainty of a standard literally will reshape the tank car industry to the benefit of all involved.

Now, it has become imperative for the government to move, in coordination with the railroads, the shippers and the tank car manufacturers and lessors to ensure the safe delivery of crude and ethanol.

North Dakotans know as well as anyone what the discovery of oil has meant to the region and to the country. It has been widely reported that America’s trade imbalance has disappeared almost overnight, and we now are a net exporter of oil to the world.

Moreover, North Dakota has helped America take a huge step toward energy independence.

We need to keep America rolling in that direction.

Thomas Simpson is president of the Railway Supply Institute, the international trade association for the rail supply industry, representing the nation’s leading companies involved in the manufacture of products and services in the freight car, tank car, locomotive, maintenance-of-way, communications and signaling and passenger rail industries.