Federal Railroad Administration Urges Safer Shipments of Time-Sensitive Hazardous Materials by Rail

WASHINGTON — Railroads, manufacturers, refiners, and businesses that ship or receive hazardous materials by rail should immediately improve procedures for tracking the movement of time-sensitive shipments, according to a Safety Advisory distributed by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) on Oct. 5.

“Anyone involved in shipping hazardous materials must take the necessary steps to ensure that time-sensitive products are properly tracked from origin to final destination,” said FRA Administrator Joseph H. Boardman.

“There is no margin for error when it comes to shipping hazardous materials. Everyone involved in this process has to get it right.”

The Safety Advisory requests that all railroads conform to a recently updated railroad industry standard that identifies a list of 20-day and 30-day time-sensitive hazardous materials, and requires specific actions to speed up movement of such cars if they are delayed in transit. The advisory also emphasizes that all railroad employees who handle such shipments be aware of, and clearly understand, the procedures.

In addition, hazardous materials shippers and end users should closely monitor the products they order and/or transport by increasing communication between one another and the railroad as shipments are in-transit to ensure all parties are aware of their location and expected delivery date, the FRA said.

The Safety Advisory is a direct result of an incident that occurred in Cincinnati, Ohio this August, Boardman said. A tank car carrying the time-sensitive chemical styrene was not delivered to its final destination, and instead apparently sat on the same railroad for seven months. As a result, the stabilizing agent in the styrene expired causing a reaction that ultimately led to an unintended release of the product and a precautionary evacuation of the surrounding area. The FRA’s investigation of this incident is ongoing, Boardman added.

There are more than 1.7 million shipments of hazardous materials by rail each year, and almost all arrive at their destination safely and without incident.

FRA said the Safety Advisory will further reduce the likelihood of an event similar to the Cincinnati incident.

“It is deeply troubling that a hazardous materials shipment, according to initial accounts, was left for months in a Cincinnati rail yard,” Bordman said. “We are going to get to the bottom of this incident, thoroughly investigate any and all violations of federal hazardous materials regulations, and punish those who are responsible. The release of a chemical product in the environment and the safety risk to the people of Cincinnati is disheartening and should not have occurred.

“We will use the full extent of our regulatory authority to obtain the information we need from the railroads, the shipper of the tank car, and other parties involved,” Boardman said.

“Where the evidence leads, we will follow. If we find that one or more parties violated federal hazardous materials regulations, we will take all appropriate enforcement actions, including imposing the strictest penalties permitted by law.”

— Special to The Cross-Tie

Published in the November 2005 edition of The Cross-Tie.