Rail safety and the propane industry

June 23, 2014 By and    

The railroad’s responsibility runs only so far and then we’re on the clock.

When Ayn Rand wrote “Atlas Shrugged” in the 1950s, there was great consternation about rail efficiency and safety.

Great industrialists like James J. Hill employed and possibly exploited the immigrant masses when they forged trails of steel rails and the infrastructure that spans our great country.

Today’s railroads still play a huge role in transporting goods, specifically crude oil to refineries and propane to storage facilities. This role with propane expanded greatly in 2013-14 with the loss of propane pipeline access and the relentless record-breaking cold weather that impacted our propane supply system.

Rail safety impacts the propane industry, and coincidentally the propane industry impacts rail safety.

Every day I see huge 120-car trains a mile long running through my backyard from the Bakken oil fields, with crude oil headed for refineries. To say these rail facilities are running at full capacity is an understatement. It is also a testimony to the fact that propane is a minority commodity in relation to crude oil domination of rails and routes where propane is needed. Keep in mind that our industry is small potatoes compared to the oil industry.

After a strong appeal from National Propane Gas Association leadership this past winter, the railroad industry did its best to improve and focus on propane rail transportation efficiency.

With each news report of an accident comes public outcry for improved rail safety.

Communities once built by the proximity to the railroad are now well populated and mature to the point of being concerned with the nature of railcar contents and inner-city speed limitations. In this regard, the railroads have a huge responsibility to ship their products safely and lend transparency to their safety practices. That’s a lot of product running through some of those towns.

A majority of rail incidents are related to track conditions and speed.

Derailments during the transportation of crude oil are of significant concern. The new crude coming from the Bakken carries an added exposure of being more volatile than normal crude due to a higher percentage of ethane. In addition to pollution exposures from ground spills, product that catches fire can cause significant air pollution concerns.

On the bright side, propane is a green energy not categorized as a pollutant, and propane railcar safety design impedes the odds of a derailment involving a rupture.

Propane leadership plays a huge role in coopting safety standards that impact the service, odorization and handling of railcar loading and unloading at terminals. The railroad may be responsible once the cars are in its control, but we are responsible for loading, unloading and maintenance safety. Any incident involving propane will cause a black eye for all stakeholders.

It should be reassuring that propane railcars are under great scrutiny from the Association of American Railroads and that federal railroad authority audits all activities. The cars are built to withstand significant impact and have specific maintenance requirements and a 40-year out-of-service date.

Obviously, due to our recent infrastructure supply problems, we need more propane railcars built, and I understand they are on order and on course to accommodate supply needs.

One of my rail safety concerns is the recent number of incidents involving propane bulk trucks and transports that have failed to stop at railway crossings this past year. Independent driver ignorance or the inability to plan to stop challenges all company and federally mandated policy. It puts the public, railroad employees and expensive equipment at risk.

At your next safety meeting, I recommend you underline and underscore your drivers’ obligation to comply with stopping at all railroad crossings regardless of conditions or hours-of-service stress. It is also a great time to strongly remind those who handle loading and unloading of railcars about the importance of compliance with rules and regulations designed to prevent and avoid costly accidents.

Jay Johnston is an insurance executive, safety/business management consultant and inspirational safety speaker. He can be reached at jay@thesafetyleader.com or 952-935-5350.

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