Update 5/19/2014: USDOT Secretary Anthony Foxx has now confirmed that the tank car that exploded and leaked oil into the James River was built to the newer CPC-1232 standard. But he didn’t say exactly how the tank car was breached, or if damage to the CPC-1232’s bottom outlet valve contributed to the fire. We expect to see this information when the NTSB comes out with their preliminary report in a few weeks.
Update 5/9/14: Preliminary reporting and statements by the NTSB confirm our findings here. At least 14 of the 17 derailed cars appear to be the newer CPC-1232 model; the other three have not yet been determined. (This article at Reuters says 10 of 13 were the newer model.)
In the wake of several high-profile oil train explosions, the industry has tried to assuage public fears by pointing out that it is building newer, and allegedly safer, models to haul crude oil. But yesterday, the alarming derailment and inferno in Lynchburg, Virginia clearly involved the newer-standard tank cars.
Take a close look at this footage from a drone posted by East Coast Drone:
Or take a look at the AP photo posted by Think Progress of the derailment. (Or glance at the dozens of high-quality images of the train derailment on the AP website.) Many of the tank cars, including at least one in the river, have a half-height head shield, which indicates that these were built to the standard, known as CPC-1232, adopted by the industry for tank cars ordered after October 2011.
Here are some of the questions we will be following as the investigation progresses:
** Was this unit train made up solely of the newer CPC-1232 tank cars? Tesoro and a few other oil-by-rail operators have said they can make oil-by-rail safe by requiring tank cars serving their facility to be newer-model.
** Were legacy tank cars mixed in with CPC-1232 tank cars, and did the older tank cars explode? In the drone video starting at 1:21 it looks like a number of the tank cars may not have the half height head shield, which would suggest they are the older legacy version, but it is difficult to tell from the video angle and resolution. (Notably, the industry has essentially told the federal government that it does not intend to phase out any of the older and notoriously unsafe models in the next few years.)
It remains to be seen whether the fire resulted from the newer cars, the older ones (if there were any), or from a combination of them. Either way, it’s a serious problem. If the train was composed solely of new-model tank cars, the Lynchburg accident may be evidence that crude oil trains are inherently unsafe regardless of the tank car models in use.
If, on the other hand, the train was composed of a mix of old and new cars, it’s evidence of a persistent problem we have pointed out before: simply adding new tank cars to the mix of unsafe cars doesn’t work. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the “safety benefits [are] not realized if old and new tank cars are commingled.” In other words, if a unit train with old and new tank cars derails, the older DOT-111s will almost certainly breach and explode, taking out the newer DOT-111s as well.
** Did the bottom outlet valves fail causing loss of crude oil? The newer DOT-111s with thicker shells and shielded ends still have an Achilles Heel: bottom outlet valves “which have been prone to failure in derailment accidents.” During derailment, when a tank car skids along the ground, the bottom outlet valve’s operating levers are bent and pulled, causing the valve to open, or the valve is sheared off altogether. In a 2009 ethanol train derailment in Illinois, for example, bottom outlet valves in three tank cars opened and released most of the ethanol from those cars.
The NTSB found that the bottom outlet valve handle breakaway design in use “has been shown to be of limited effectiveness in preventing product releases from bottom outlets” and that existing standards and regulations for the protection of bottom outlet valves on tank cars “are insufficient to ensure that the valves remain closed during accidents.”
The Lynchburg derailment is only the latest in a string of catastrophic oil train explosions, and it is yet more evidence that when it comes to transporting crude oil by rail, every trip has to be perfect. The tracks can never be tampered with, no auto or truck can ever stall in a crossing (or be left on the track maliciously), no mix-ups in communication can ever occur, no mudslide can hit a train. Or, as was likely the case in Lynchburg, heavy rains can’t be allowed to undermine the track bed.
There is no margin for error. And it may well turn out to be that there is little reason to feel sanguine about oil transport even in new model tank cars.