CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Outdated train cars carrying flammable liquids across Iowa and the rest of the country would be phased out within two years under a new proposal from the U.S. Transportation Department.
During the phaseout, trains carrying highly flammable liquids, such as crude oil and ethanol, in DOT-111 tank cars could be limited to driving 40 miles per hour — much slower than some trains barrel through Eastern Iowa.
“They clearly recognize a need for a reduced speed limit for unmodified cars,” said Albert Ratner, a University of Iowa associate professor of mechanical engineering who studies fires during train derailments.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx outlined the proposed rules Wednesday, saying the safe transport of crude and ethanol has been one of his top priorities since he took office last July.
On July 6, 2013, 47 people died when a runaway train of crude oil in DOT-111 cars exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Although most hazardous materials are shipped without incident, there have been several high-profile crude derailments in recent months.
Nine Iowa counties — including five along the Mississippi River in Eastern Iowa — see rail shipments of 1 million gallons or more of extra-flammable crude oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota, Montana and Canada.
Trains carrying ethanol and other hazardous materials, such as petroleum products, hydrochloric acid and pesticides, pass through many Eastern Iowa communities, including Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.
The east-west Union Pacific line, as it goes through Fairfax, has a speed limit of 70 mph. Engineers reduce the speed to 50 mph if there are 20 or more cars of hazardous materials, UP officials said.
The speed limit on Iowa Interstate Railroad’s 500-plus miles of track is 40 mph. Canadian Pacific’s tracks through Iowa vary from 10 to 40 mph.
Under the proposed rules, DOT 111’s — which now make up 70 percent of the U.S. tank car fleet — would be phased out over two years for shipping specific types of flammable liquids, including Bakken crude and ethanol, unless the cars were retrofitted for improved safety.
Speeds would be restricted for trains carrying 20 or more tank cars of flammable liquids. Possible speed limits include 40 mph in all areas, 40 mph in “high-threat” urban areas or 40 mph in areas with at least 100,000 people.
Trains without enhanced braking systems could be limited to 30 mph, while trains without DOT-111s could go 50 mph.
“They’ve left themselves a lot of wiggle room,” Ratner said. “They’re probably waiting to see how much push back there will be.”
Tom Simpson, president of the Railway Supply Institute, a trade group that acts on behalf of suppliers to North American Railroads, said Wednesday his group was still reviewing the proposal.
“We are analyzing the proposed rule and have no additional comments at this time,” he said in an email to The Gazette.
The rail car supply industry has so far built more than 17,000 upgraded tankers that include thicker steel, stronger end caps and more protection for top fittings, Simpson told The Gazette in April. They expect to have 55,000 by the end of 2015.
The proposed rules must be posted for 60 days for public comment.
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