New transportation law puts stricter requirements on tank cars

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A Canadian Pacific unit crude oil train passes through Milwaukee's south side in November. Most were DOT-111-type tank cars which now have further restrictions placed on them by the latest transportation bill.
Steve Sweeney
WASHINGTON — Deep within the 1,301-pages of the nation's newest surface transportation bill signed into law last week are a gamut of new rules and regulations putting a focus on rail safety. The Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, the five year, $305-billion-plan passed by Congress last week, includes tough new tank car standards, funds for positive train control installation, and sets aside hundreds of millions of dollars to increase grade crossing safety across the nation.

Perhaps the most detailed rail safety regulations in the FAST Act are found within 27 pages dedicated to the movement of flammable liquids by rail. The new rules follow nearly a dozen high-profile oil train derailments over the last few years in North America. Although the Federal Railroad Administration issued tank car rules this past spring, the regulations outlined in the FAST Act go even further, and include requirements for tough thermal blankets and new protective housing for top fittings.

The FAST Act reaffirms a timeline set up by the FRA and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for phasing out certain tank cars, including the DOT-111 that was at the center of the deadly Lac-Megantic, Quebec, wreck in 2013. The Secretary of Transportation will also have the ability to extend phase-out deadlines if they do no believe the industry will be able to meet them. Half-inch thermal insulated blanketing meant to prevent cars from catching fire or rupturing in case of a derailment will also be required on all DOT-117 type tank cars from now on.

Other oil train safety-related items outlined in the FAST Act includes a prevision offering community service grants to non-profit groups to fund accident response training and research and new requirements for how Class 1 railroads are supposed to offer live oil train consist information to state and local agencies. The act also requires the Department of Transportation to study what levels of liability insurance railroads should have to operate oil trains.

Tank car rules and oil train insurance were not the only rail safety items listed in the FAST Act. The bill also directed the transportation department to distribute $199 million in competitive grants for PTC installation. The money will be funded via the Mass Transit Account, part of the Highway Trust Fund. But the $199 million for PTC is a drop in the bucket when compared to the $1.1 billion the federal government promises to spend on grade crossing safety over the next five years. Starting in Fiscal Year 2016, the USDOT will spend between $225 million and $245 million annually on eliminating grade crossing hazards and installing new protective devices. The bill also directs the FRA to develop a comprehensive plan to reduce grade crossing accidents across the country.
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