WASHINGTON -- As they await new federal guidelines on shipment of crude oil, railroads are taking their own steps to improve the shipments' safety.
On Thursday, BNSF, the nation's largest hauler of crude oil in trains, said it would purchase 5,000 new, better-protected tank cars exclusively for such shipments.
It's an unusual move by Fort Worth, Texas-based BNSF, owned by billionaire investor Warren Buffett. Railroads generally don't own tank cars; rather, shippers lease them from freight car manufacturers or financial institutions.
BNSF spokeswoman Roxanne Butler said the voluntary move would help "provide tank car builders a head start on tank car design and production, even as the Department of Transportation, railroads and shippers continue to engage in the formal rule-making process."
A boom in domestic oil drilling and rising ethanol production spurred a dramatic increase in shipments of the materials by rail. Much of it is being hauled by an old fleet of some 78,000 tank cars that are prone to split during accidents.
The tank cars have failed catastrophically in several derailments of crude oil trains since last summer. In July, one such train rolled down a hill and came off the tracks in the center of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, igniting a deadly and destructive fire that killed 47 people. More recent derailments in Alabama, North Dakota and Pennsylvania caused major spills or fires, but no injuries or fatalities.
On Feb. 13, 21 cars of a Norfolk Southern Railway freight train barreled off the tracks on a curve in Vandergrift, Westmoreland County, many tankers tumbling onto their sides. No one was hurt, and a thick crude oil that leaked from three derailed cars was contained before it could enter the nearby Kiskiminetas River. But at least one railcar struck a building that houses a specialty metals company. The building was evacuated as a precaution.
BNSF isn't the only rail company to act to protect a growing business. Earlier this month, Canada's two largest railroads, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, said they would charge 5 percent more to ship oil in older, less-protected tank cars, known as DOT-111As. Both carriers have extensive operations in the United States.
An Association of American Railroads spokeswoman said the group does not comment on individual railroad business decisions, but urged federal officials to finalize work on new tank car regulations as soon as possible. Spokeswoman Holly Arthur said that would "provide certainty to the marketplace."
In a speech to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce this week, Canadian Pacific CEO Hunter Harrison said the older cars should be removed from crude oil service immediately. "Don't wait for a study," he said. "We know the facts."
Thursday's announcement marks a potential major step in addressing the vulnerable tank car problem. But it would not mean older cars would go away, and there's already a two-year backlog on new tank car construction.
In addition to the older tank cars, there are about 14,000 cars being used that were built according to a more stringent standard the industry established in 2011.
BNSF's proposal would go further still. Among added safety features being sought by the company are one-half-inch-thick steel shields that would go on either end of the tank cars to help prevent them from cracking open during accidents. The new cars also would have pressure-relief valves capable of withstanding an ethanol-based fire and a tank body made of thicker steel than existing cars.
The National Transportation Safety Board for many years has been warning about the tank cars' vulnerability in derailments. Worried state and local officials have been counting on the federal government to protect their communities from disaster, but it could be another year before the new tank car regulations become final.
Paul Reistrup, a retired railroad executive who was Amtrak's president in the 1970s, said the industry is right to take a proactive approach to the problem. "You have to be Johnny-on-the-spot," he said. "The safety of the cars is very important."
Post-Gazette staff writer Jon Schmitz and Associated Press contributed.