After a series of fiery crashes, and months of negotiations with railroads, shippers and oil producers, U.S. and Canadian regulators Friday imposed tough new design standards on the tanker cars used to ship flammable liquids across the country.
The new rules will force the replacement and upgrade of tens of thousands of older cars under a timeline that was eased after railroads and shippers warned that the standards could overwhelm the industry's capacity to retrofit older cars and build new ones to the tougher standards.
"This is a schedule that we believe is workable, and it is aggressive," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "If you talk to some of the manufacturers, this is more aggressive than some of them would like."
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The new rules, announced jointly with Canada's minister of transport, Lisa Raitt, come nearly two years after a catastrophic crash in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people and leveled much of the city.
There's widespread agreement on the need for stronger cars, after a surge in rail shipments of oil that has accompanied the boom in domestic oil and gas production. Much of the so-called unconventional production is coming from fields like the Bakken in North Dakota where the existing network of oil pipelines can't handle the boom in production.
"We've got to think ahead of the problems," said Foxx. "This rule is recognizing that we've got a growing risk."
The new regulations call for fresh standards for cars built after this October and upgrades to older tank cars constructed to standards that predate the oil boom and surge in rail shipments of crude. Tank cars will have to have thicker steel shells, stronger shields to protect the front of the car, thermal protection to better withstand fires and stronger valves to prevent leaks in the event of a derailment.
The rules also include a schedule designed to replace the most dangerous cars first, the so-called unjacketed DOT-111 cars that are the most prone to puncturing. The regulations also impose speed restrictions for the older tank cars.
"It'll still be tight, but it looks like it's not as completely out of line as the first proposal was," said Kevin Neels, a transportation consultant with The Brattle Group, which prepared an industry-sponsored report on the economic impact of the new rules. "But everyone is going to have to scramble to get this done. There's no doubt about that."