Today, May 8, 2015, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration published a final rule for rail transport of crude oil in the Federal Register. These rules come after several high-profile oil train derailments, including one recently in North Dakota that caused the evacuation of a nearby town.

The final rule applies to “high-hazard flammable trains,” defined as trains with a continuous block of 20 or more tank cars loaded with a flammable liquid or 35 or more tank cars loaded with a flammable liquid dispersed through a train. The final rule regulates: (1) tank car design standards, (2) braking systems, (3) speed restrictions, (4) routing restrictions, (5) classifications of unrefined petroleum-based products, and (6) notification requirements.

Tank Car Design

New tank cars constructed after October 1, 2015 are required to meet new design criteria. Tank cars must be constructed with 9/16 inch steel walls and a head shield with a minimum thickness of 1/2 inch. The entire protection system must be covered with a metal jacket of at least 11 gauge steel. Tank cars must also include improved pressure relief valves and bottom outlet valves. All existing tanks must be retrofitted according to a risk based schedule in the next three to five years.

Braking Systems

Under the regulations, all trains traveling faster than 30 mph must be equipped with either two-way end-of-train braking devices or distributed power braking systems. By January 1, 2021, each train traveling faster than 30 mph must be equipped with a new electronic braking system.

Speed Restrictions

All trains are restricted to 50 mph. Trains that contain any tank cars not meeting the above described tank car design standards are restricted to 40 mph in high-threat urban areas. Furthermore, any trains that do not meet the above-described brake system standards are restricted to 30 mph.

Routing Restrictions

Rail carriers must perform a routing analysis that considers, at a minimum, 27 safety and security factors and select a route based on its findings. Track type, class, and maintenance schedule as well as training and skill level of crews are included in the 27 risk factors identified that need to be considered, at a minimum, in a route analysis.

Classifications of Unrefined Petroleum-Based Products

Shippers of unrefined petroleum-based products, such as crude oil, must develop and carry out sampling and testing programs to ensure that materials are properly classified in accordance with the regulations. Shippers are responsible for certifying that materials have been properly classified and all packaging requirements have been met.

Notification Requirements

Rail carriers must provide State and/or regional fusion centers, and State, local and tribal officials with a railroad point of contact for information related to the routing of hazardous materials through their jurisdictions.

The new regulation has come with mixed reactions. The American Fuel Petrochemical Manufacturers states that “this aggressive retrofit schedule is unrealistic and may be disruptive to transporting crude oil to markets across the country.” The American Petroleum Institute calls the safety impact of the new braking requirements “marginal at best” and states that the railcar manufacturing industry “does not have the shop capacity to meet the retrofit timeline.” The Association of American Railroads calls the new regulations “imprudent” and based on flawed safety data. Despite having “some concerns,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) state that “the new tank car requirements are a sensible approach to address shortcomings in older car designs and will lead to substantial safety benefits.” However, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said that the new regulation is “more of a status quo rule than the real safety changes needed to protect the public and first responders.”

The regulations are a result of the large volume of crude oil being transported by rail throughout the country. With a growing domestic supply, rail transportation has emerged as a flexible alternative to transportation by pipeline or ship. The volume of crude oil carried by rail increased by 20-fold between 2008 and 2013. In 2013, the number of rail carloads of crude oil totaled approximately 435,560.

The Final Rule will be effective July 7, 2015.