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It was only on May 1 that the United States and Canada announced stricter new rules for oil trains, but five days later a train carrying crude derailed and burned in central North Dakota, forcing the evacuation of the tiny town of Heimdal. It was at least the third oil-car accident in North America so far this year.
Local fire officials said 10 tank cars derailed about 7:30 a.m., forcing the evacuation of about 40 residents from nearby Heimdal, though there were no injuries. Nevertheless, the contents of six of the cars carrying more than 300,000 gallons of crude oil caught fire and burned, emitting a billow of acrid black smoke that mixed with a light rain.
The oil had been loaded onto tank cars owned by the Hess Corp., a US oil company, at its rail depot in Tioga, about 170 miles northwest of the accident site. The train, operated by BNSF, included 109 cars; two of them carried sand and the rest were laden with crude.
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The site of the accident is on one of the chief rail routes linking North Dakota’s huge Bakken shale formation, which is believed to hold billions of barrels of oil, to refineries. Most of the crude is shipped by train, and most of that is destined for the US Atlantic Coast.
BNSF said all the cars that derailed were relatively new CPC-1232 models, having been built within the past four years, and have more safety features than earlier tank cars. Yet these models already have been in at least two accidents in 2015, one involving another BNSF train in northern Illinois and the other, a train operated by CSX, in Fayetter County, W.Va.
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The accident in Heimdal came less than a week after the US Department of Transportation and Canada’s Transport Ministry issued new rules for oil trains in an effort to limit the number and severity of such incidents. They would gradually end the use of older tank cars, add electronic braking systems and impose speed limits.
Still, the new regulations would allow the CPC-1232 model tank cars to remain in commission for five more years before they’re replaced or upgraded with protective steel jackets to make them less susceptible to oil spills and fires caused by derailments.
Rail safety advocates say the May 6 accident only illustrates the need for tougher new standards for shipping oil by train, but some contend that now is the time to replace the CPC-1232 tank cars, not in five years, which would provide more opportunity for such incidents.
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Even the manufacturer of the CPC-1232 models considers the cars dangerous. William Furman, the CEO of The Greenbrier Companies, which makes the cars, told Reuters that when they derail, they set off a chain reaction in other cars. “If they roll, release and ignite from friction or drag, they will ignite others that aren’t jacketed or insulated,” Furman said.
The real focus, though, shouldn’t be the cars so much as ways to prevent derailments in the first place, according to Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of engineering at the University of Southern California, who focuses on transportation safety.
“[W]e should be more focused at this point on the root causes of the accidents, on why the trains are derailing, and develop some leading indicators on those,” Meshkati told The New York Times.
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com