Are Oil Trains Just Too Heavy? No Regulations, No Weigh To Know

The cause of the most recent bomb train derailment and fire in Mosier, OR has been determined to be lag bolts that had sheared off resulting in the derailment. This once again raises concerns that the unit trains of oil are putting too much stress on the tracks due to their excessive weight and length. 

There is precedent for this issue according to rail consultant and former industry official Steven Ditmeyer. In the early 1990s, there was a similar problem with some double stacked container cars being too heavy for the infrastructure — because of overloaded containers — resulting in sheared rail spikes.

This sounds like a very similar circumstance to what was happening in the early 1990s with overloaded double stack container cars,” Ditmeyer told DeSmog.

So, since double stacked containers are currently in wide use but there are no longer derailment issues like in the 1990s, what changed?

Once they began weighing the containers before they loaded them — and they made sure the center plates of the trucks under the cars were lubricated so they could swivel more easily — the problem basically went away,” Ditmeyer explained.   

So, by implementing a practice of weighing the containers before loading them it was possible to avoid overloaded rail cars. Nothing too far fetched in that reasoning. 

These Oil Trains Are Too Heavy, Too Long, Too Fast

While the Mosier accident provides more evidence that unit trains of oil are putting more stress on the tracks, it isn’t the first time we have learned of this problem. 

As the LA Times reported in 2015, investigators at Canada's Transportation Safety Board suspect that the oil trains are causing unusual track damage.

Petroleum crude oil unit trains transporting heavily loaded tank cars will tend to impart higher than usual forces to the track infrastructure during their operation,” the safety board said in a report. “These higher forces expose any weaknesses that may be present in the track structure, making the track more susceptible to failure.”  

One of the other suspected causes of the oil train derailments is the length of the trains, which create repetitive stresses on the tracks not made by shorter trains. Doug Finnson, president of the Teamsters Rail Conference of Canada, expressed concerns about this to CBC News after an oil train derailment in Canada last year saying, “These trains are likely too long, too heavy and going too fast for the track conditions in place.”

Federal Railroad Administration Concerned About Train Weight in 2013 

In the weeks following the oil train disaster in Lac-Megantic, a lot of important questions were asked. 

Some of these questions were posed by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in a July 2013 letter to the American Petroleum Institute (API).

In the July 2013 letter, Thomas J. Herrmann, Acting Director of the Office of Safety Assurance and Compliance addressed API CEO Jack Gerard outlining several safety concerns including the following: 

FRA notes that tank cars overloaded by weight are typically identified when the tank cars go over a weigh-in-motion scale at a railroad's classification yard. As indicated above, crude oil is typically moved in unit trains, and the cars in a unit train do not typically pass over weigh-in-motion scales in classification yards.  

So, we know that the weight of oil trains is a safety concern. And in 2013 the FRA had information showing that the industry wasn’t using weigh-in-motion scales to check loaded tank car weights.

And we also know that using scales to weigh containers before double stacking them solved the overloading problem in the 1990s. 

So what was the API’s response to this letter? We don’t know yet because last week the Federal Railroad Administration told DeSmog it will require a Freedom of Information request to get a copy. (DeSmog’s last FOI request submitted to the FRA took almost two years to get a response.) 

American Petroleum Institute Makes the Rules

So why was the FRA asking the oil industry’s most powerful lobbying group questions about oil-by-rail safety? 

The answer to that helps explain why unsafe oil trains continue to roll through communities across America. The American Petroleum Institute is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in America with a CEO paid as much as $13 million a year to advance the oil industry agenda.

However, the API also happens to be the organization responsible for writing the standards for “safety” for oil trains.

A Washington Post article summed it up nicely saying, “API, which still sets global technical standards…”

Still. Anyone see a problem with letting an organization that has denied the scientific facts about climate change be responsible for determining the facts and science regarding the safe operation of oil trains? 

The development of standards is a major part of API’s ongoing work to enhance safety throughout our industry,” said API President and CEO Jack Gerard in 2014. “This particular standard is one element of a much broader approach to safety improvement.”

Gerard was referring to the 2014 standard on filling oil tank cars. 

It is important to remember that the more oil you can put in a tank, the more money you can make. So the oil industry has an incentive to overfill tank cars. 

Despite the evidence of weighing double stack containers to make sure the trains weren’t too heavy — which eliminated the issue of sheared rail spikes — scales are not being used to avoid overloaded oil tank cars. 

So, if as the FRA noted in its 2013 letter, overloaded tank cars are typically identified in the rail industry by weigh-in-motion scales — but those aren’t used for oil unit trains — the question is why not?

And the answer is because the American Petroleum Institute makes the rules. And this is what the API standard says about weighing tank cars to check for overweight cars. 

Static (stationary) or weigh-in-motion (dynamic) weigh scales (railway track scales) are acceptable methods for quantity determination of crude oil. If an operator considers weigh scales as an option…

Acceptable, not required, and up to the operator. And thus the scales are not currently used.  

If The Oil Is Boiling At Room Temperature, Testing Results May Be “Erroneous”

So if you choose to not weigh your tank cars to see if they are too heavy, what are your options? According to the API standard, there is the option of “Calculating the Loading Target Quantity (LTQ).”

To do this the standard says “the LTQ calculation system or process will require density as an input variable.”  

And it goes on to say: 

Multiple test methods exist for measuring density. Methods for determining density include API MPMS Ch. 9.1, API MPMS Ch. 9.3 or ASTM D5002 [13]. Application of the test method for density requires a dead crude oil (3.7) or field stabilization of the crude oil prior to sampling and testing. Indications of un-stabilized crude oil are visible bubbling, foaming, and/or boiling. 

Never mind the basic fact that the industry may be shipping oil that is boiling at room temperature — which should make everyone worried. The problem with this approach is that all of the Bakken crude is unstabilized. So then the standard includes this note: 

NOTE Use of density test methods on un-stabilized/live crude oils can yield erroneous results due to loss of light components. 

The API standard notes that testing unstabilized crude for density can yield erroneous results. Which is a bit of a problem since Bakken crude is not stabilized before it's loaded into rail tank cars. 

This is what happens when you let oil companies and oil lobbyists write the standards on how to safely operate oil trains. 

Industry Plays By The Rules It Writes, And Wins 

It is clear that heavier trains can increase the likelihood of things like lag bolts shearing as they did in Mosier, Oregon, causing an oil train derailment and subsequent fire and spill. That is basic physics. 

And as they did in the 1990s with overloaded container trains, the problem was solved in part by weighing the containers to eliminate overloading. 

After the Mosier accident, FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg commented to the Associated Press on concerns about the oil tank cars being too heavy. 

“Feinberg said tank cars that haul crude oil and other products have weight limits, but there's been no suggestion Union Pacific's cars exceeded them.”

The FRA was concerned about this issue in 2013. We know Canada's Transportation Safety Board said, “Petroleum crude oil unit trains transporting heavily loaded tank cars will tend to impart higher than usual forces to the track infrastructure during their operation.”

And in the case of Mosier the sheared lag bolts certainly suggest that the trains could be too heavy.

But the reality is that whether anyone suggests it or not, there is currently no way to know. Because the American Petroleum Institute is writing the rules. 

Blog Image Credit: Justin Mikulka