Safety Recommendation R-17-001
Details
Synopsis: On Monday, December 30, 2013, at 2:10 p.m. central standard time, a westbound BNSF Railway Company (BNSF) train with 112 cars loaded with grain derailed 13 cars while traveling on main track 1 at milepost 28.5 near Casselton, North Dakota.1 The first car that derailed (the 45th car) fouled the adjacent track, main track 2. At 2:11 p.m. an eastbound BNSF train with 104 tank cars loaded with petroleum crude oil (crude oil), traveling on main track 2, struck the derailed car that was fouling the track and derailed two head-end locomotives, a buffer car, and 20 cars loaded with crude oil.2 After the collision, about 476,000 gallons of crude oil were released and burned. (See figure 1.) On the day of the accident, the weather was cloudy with a temperature of -1°F and winds from the north at 7 mph. No injuries were reported by residents or either of the train crews. The BNSF reported damages of $13.5 million, not including lading and environmental remediation.
Recommendation: TO THE PIPELINE AND HAZARDOUS MATERIALS SAFETY ADMINISTRATION: Evaluate the risks posed to train crews by hazardous materials transported by rail, determine the adequate separation distance between hazardous materials cars and locomotives and occupied equipment that ensures the protection of train crews during both normal operations and accident conditions, and collaborate with the Federal Railroad Administration to revise 49 Code of Federal Regulations 174.85 to reflect those findings.
Original recommendation transmittal letter: PDF
Overall Status: Open - Acceptable Response
Mode: Railroad
Location: Casselton, ND, USA
Is Reiterated: Yes
Is Hazmat: No
Is NPRM: No
Accident #: DCA14MR004
Accident Reports:
Report #: RAB-17-03
Accident Date: 12/30/2013
Issue Date: 3/9/2017
Date Closed:
Addressee(s) and Addressee Status: PHMSA (Open - Acceptable Response)
Keyword(s): Hazmat

Safety Recommendation History
From: NTSB
To: PHMSA
Date: 9/7/2021
Response: We note that you are continuing to research the appropriate distance to separate train crews from hazardous materials cars. Pending the completion of that research and PHMSA’s collaborating with the FRA to revise 49 CFR 174.85 to reflect those findings, Safety Recommendation R-17-1 remains classified OPEN-- ACCEPTABLE RESPONSE.

From: PHMSA
To: NTSB
Date: 2/12/2021
Response: -From Tristan H. Brown, Acting Administrator: PHMSA appreciates NTSB’s ongoing concerns for the safety of train crews and understands the need to determine adequate separation distance of hazardous materials from train crews to help ensure the protection of train crews. As mentioned in previous correspondence, PHMSA concurred with R-17-01. In April 2019, PHMSA initiated a research project in coordination with the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center (Volpe Center) to help determine the appropriate separation distance of train crews from hazardous materials cars. In addition to COVID-19 related delays, the Volpe Center project was extended further to allow for reciprocal peer reviews of collective efforts on separation distance research with Transport Canada, as part of their broader effort to develop guidelines for train marshalling and handling. PHMSA expects a report on the Volpe Center project by June 2021. PHMSA notes NTSB’s disagreement with our position that the withdrawal of our letter of interpretation (Reference Number 06-0278) will not change the requirement for a minimum separation distance. PHMSA believes that withdrawal of the letter of interpretation is premature. It would cause unnecessary confusion within the regulated community in the absence of a rulemaking proposing a change that would provide the public with an opportunity to comment. Moreover, such a proposed change would require justification through supporting safety and cost data. PHMSA expects the Volpe Center project to help inform any subsequent decision (e.g. on further research) about the appropriate separation distance between train crews and hazardous materials, and, subsequently, whether a corresponding proposed regulatory change is warranted. If we can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact Dirk Der Kinderen, NTSB Program Manager for the Office of Hazardous Materials Safety.

From: NTSB
To: PHMSA
Date: 12/17/2020
Response: From the Railroad Safety Recommendation Report (RSR-20-01) “Placement of DOT-111 Tank Cars in High Hazard Flammable Trains and the Use of Buffer Cars for the Protection of Train Crews,” published December 17, 2020. Previous Safety Recommendations This is not the first time the NTSB has investigated instances in which train crews operating unit trains of hazardous materials were placed at risk from exposure to released hazardous materials. On December 30, 2013, a BNSF Railway crude oil unit train derailed in Casselton, North Dakota, and the train crew narrowly escaped their locomotive before it was destroyed by the eruption of a postaccident fire and energetic fireballs from breached tank cars.25 As a result, the NTSB issued the following safety recommendations to PHMSA: Evaluate the risks posed to train crews by hazardous materials transported by rail, determine the adequate separation distance between hazardous materials cars and locomotives and occupied equipment that ensures the protection of train crews during both normal operations and accident conditions, and collaborate with the Federal Railroad Administration to revise 49 Code of Federal Regulations 174.85 to reflect those findings. (R-17-01) (Status: Open—Acceptable Response.) Pending completion of the risk evaluation and action in accordance with its findings prescribed in Safety Recommendation R-17-01, withdraw regulatory interpretation 06-0278 that pertains to 49 Code of Federal Regulations 174.85 for positioning placarded rail cars in a train and require that all trains have a minimum of five nonplacarded cars between any locomotive or occupied equipment and the nearest placarded car transporting hazardous materials, regardless of train length and consist. (R-17-02) (Status: Open—Acceptable Response.) As a result of the Casselton accident, the NTSB also issued the following companion recommendation to the FRA: Evaluate the risks posed to train crews by hazardous materials transported by rail, determine the adequate separation distance between hazardous materials cars and locomotives and occupied equipment that ensures the protection of train crews during both normal operations and accident conditions, and collaborate with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to revise 49 Code of Federal Regulations 174.85 to reflect those findings. (R-17-03) (Status: Open—Acceptable Response.) PHMSA initially replied to Safety Recommendations R-17-01 and -02 on June 7, 2017, when it said that in 2015 it collaborated with the FRA under the scope of the RSAC Hazardous Materials Issues Working Group, Task No. 15-04, to address the separation distance issue, but stakeholder disagreement and lack of established incident data resulted in a lack of consensus. 28 With regard to Safety Recommendation R-17-03, on May 31, 2017, the FRA said that it was “working with PHMSA to inform a potential revision of 49 CFR 174.85.” In an August 7, 2020, letter PHMSA updated the NTSB on its actions to satisfy Safety Recommendations R-17-01 and -02.30 With regard to Safety Recommendation R-17-01, PHMSA said that in April 2019, it initiated a research project at the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center (Volpe Center) to determine the appropriate separation distance of train crews from hazardous materials cars. The study proposes to review existing literature on separation distances, identify gaps in the existing studies, areas for further research, and determine what conclusions, if any, can be drawn from this information. PHMSA said that a final report about this study, including its findings was expected by the end of 2020. PHMSA also discussed a similar study by Transport Canada, and PHMSA’s plan to share with Transport Canada the progress and results of the two studies. With regard to Safety Recommendation R-17-02, PHMSA said in its August 7, 2020, letter that withdrawing the letter of interpretation 06-0278 would not change the regulatory requirement for separation distance of hazardous materials cars from train crews, and that adopting a minimum five-car separation distance standard would require a rulemaking action.31 PHMSA planned no action until after completion of the Volpe Center and Transport Canada studies. PHMSA also said that the current five-car separation distance required by 49 CFR 174.85(d) applies when the train length permits. As set forth in regulatory interpretation 06-0278, PHMSA regards the train lengths permitting the five-car separation to be when there are enough nonhazardous materials cars in the train. When there are not enough nonhazardous materials cars in the train, a placarded car must be placed near the middle of the train, but not nearer than the second car from an engine or occupied caboose. The NTSB disagrees with PHMSA’s position that withdrawing regulatory interpretation 06-0278 would not change the requirement for separation distance. In the absence of regulatory interpretation 06-0278, the exception on placarded car placement contained in 49 CFR 174.85(d), “when train length permits,” would only apply when the train is too short to achieve five-car separation from the first placarded car. Regulatory interpretation 06-0278 in practice removes the requirements of 49 CFR 174.85 for the operation of HHFTs. The intent of Safety Recommendation R-17-02 is for 49 CFR 174.85(d) to be interpreted as it is currently written, requiring a minimum of five nonplacarded cars separating the locomotive or occupied equipment from the nearest placarded car transporting hazardous materials until such time as the adequate separation distance is determined as called for in Safety Recommendation R-17-01. The circumstances of the December 13, 2013, accident in Casselton, North Dakota, and the February 13, 2020, accident in Draffin, Kentucky, demonstrate the need to implement appropriate separation distance requirements. The NTSB urges PHMSA and FRA to consider the circumstances of these accidents, which should serve to reinforce the urgency of implementing appropriate separation distance requirements. The NTSB concludes that a single buffer car does not provide sufficient separation distance from train crews when the head end of a high hazard flammable train becomes involved in a derailment because the higher energy state caused by the trailing tonnage and run-in forces can push breached hazardous materials tank cars dangerously close to occupied locomotives. The NTSB is concerned that this safety issue could further imperil train crews since PHMSA issued final rule HM-264 on July 24, 2020, that authorizes the transportation of liquefied natural gas in unit trains of DOT-113 tank cars without establishing requirements for crew separation distance from cars carrying hazardous materials.32 Therefore, the NTSB reiterates Safety Recommendations R-17-01 and R-17-02 to PHMSA, and Safety Recommendation R-17-03 to the FRA. PHMSA’s sponsorship of the Volpe Center study initiated in April 2019 and scheduled to be finished by the end of 2020 is partially responsive to Safety Recommendation R-17-01. Pending completion of the study, and revisions to 49 CFR 174.85 to provide adequate separation from hazardous materials in both normal operations and accident conditions, Safety Recommendation R-17-01 remains classified OPEN—ACCEPTABLE RESPONSE. Because PHMSA does not plan to withdraw regulatory interpretation 06-0278 or take any interim action to address the demonstrated safety risk from inadequate separation between placarded cars transporting hazardous materials and any locomotive or occupied equipment, Safety Recommendation R-17-02 is classified “Open—Unacceptable Response.”

From: NTSB
To: PHMSA
Date: 12/17/2020
Response: Railroad Safety Recommendation Report (RSR-20-01) “Placement of DOT-111 Tank Cars in High Hazard Flammable Trains and the Use of Buffer Cars for the Protection of Train Crews,” published December 17, 2020. Safety Recommendations R-17-01, R-17-02, and R-17-03 were reiterated in this report.

From: PHMSA
To: NTSB
Date: 8/7/2020
Response: -From Ms. Drue Pearce, Deputy Administrator: In April 2019, PHMSA initiated a research project in coordination with the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center (Volpe Center) to help determine the appropriate separation distance of train crews from hazardous materials cars. The initial phase of the study will review existing literature on separation distances, identify gaps in the existing studies, areas for further research, and determine what conclusions, if any, can be drawn from the existing knowledge base. This project is ongoing but has been delayed. PHMSA expects that the Volpe Center will provide a final report with its findings by the end of this year. PHMSA also notes that a similar study conducted by Transport Canada is underway and that we are communicating about the progress of our respective projects. Moreover, we plan to collaborate with Transport Canada and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) on the projects' findings and the impact on separation distance requirements. Withdrawing letter of interpretation reference number 06-0278 referenced in Safety Recommendation R-17-02 will not change the regulatory requirement for separation distance of hazardous materials cars from train crews. Adopting a minimum five-car separation distance standard would require a rulemaking action. PHMSA plans no interim action while we await the completion of the Volpe Center study and collaboration with Transport Canada and FRA. The current five-car separation distance standard in§ 174.85(d) applies when the train length permits (i.e., when there are enough non-hazardous materials cars in the train). When train length does not permit, a placarded car must be placed near the middle of the train, but not nearer than the second car from an engine or occupied caboose. We ask that the NTSB reconsider the utility of Safety Recommendation R-17-02 and emphasize Safety Recommendation R-17-01 to evaluate the risk to train crews and determining adequate separation distance. If we can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact Dirk Der Kinderen, NTSB Program Manager for the Office of Hazardous Materials Safety.

From: NTSB
To: PHMSA
Date: 12/5/2019
Response: The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has reviewed the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) October 24, 2019, notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM), Hazardous Materials: Liquefied Natural Gas by Rail.1 In this notice, PHMSA, in coordination with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), is proposing changes to the Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR) to allow for the bulk transport of Methane, refrigerated liquid, commonly known as liquefied natural gas (LNG), in rail tank cars. The NPRM responds to the April 10, 2019, Presidential Executive Order on Promoting Energy Infrastructure and Economic Growth which directed the Secretary of Transportation to propose for notice and comment a rule, no later than 100 days after the date of the order, that would treat LNG the same as other cryogenic liquids and permit LNG to be transported in approved rail tank cars. In this NPRM, PHMSA solicits public comment on potential HMR changes that would authorize the transportation of LNG by rail in the DOT-113C120W specification rail tank car.3 PHMSA states this action is needed to facilitate the transportation of natural gas to markets where pipeline transportation is limited or unavailable. Additionally, in response to the December 30, 2013, collision of two BNSF freight trains in Casselton, North Dakota, the NTSB issued two safety recommendations to PHMSA relative to train placement of hazardous materials; Evaluate the risks posed to train crews by hazardous materials transported by rail, determine the adequate separation distance between hazardous materials cars and locomotives and occupied equipment that ensures the protection of train crews during both normal operations and accident conditions, and collaborate with the Federal Railroad Administration to revise 49 Code of Federal Regulations 174.85 to reflect those findings. (R-17-1) This safety recommendation is currently classified “Open—Acceptable Response”. Pending completion of the risk evaluation and action in accordance with its findings prescribed in Safety Recommendation R-17-01, withdraw regulatory interpretation 06-0278 that pertains to 49 Code of Federal Regulations 174.85 for positioning placarded rail cars in a train and require that all trains have a minimum of five nonplacarded cars between any locomotive or occupied equipment and the nearest placarded car transporting hazardous materials, regardless of train length and consist. (R-17-2) This safety recommendation is currently classified “Open—Acceptable Response”. Given the potential hazards of LNG when released, as described in the Exponent, Inc. quantitative risk analysis report and the NPRM regulatory analysis as including fireballs, flash fire, and explosions from ground-level vapor clouds that may vigorously expand far beyond the point of release to an ignition source, cryogenic material thermal exposure hazards, and asphyxiation hazards for a colorless and odorless gas that lack sufficient warning properties, the NTSB urges PHMSA to implement appropriate train crew separation distance requirements, as recommended by Safety Recommendations R-17-1 and -2.12 Crew separation from potential sources of LNG release is particularly necessary since the product is not odorized, potentially leaving train crews unaware of leaks and hazardous flammable gas accumulations unless provided with and properly trained on the operation of specialized detection equipment. PHMSA acknowledges in the NPRM that, although rare, derailments involving DOT-113 tank cars can result in large quantities of hazardous materials being released and the consequences of such an event could be more severe than releases from cargo tank motor vehicles. Recent history with unit train shipments of ethanol and crude oil demonstrate how unprepared federal regulators were to address the spate of fiery flammable liquids accidents that occurred between 2009 and 2015 until regulations for HHFTs were published.

From: NTSB
To: PHMSA
Date: 4/10/2018
Response: We note that you will further review the literature about separation distances between hazardous materials cars and occupied locomotives, and we point out that, for the purposes of Safety Recommendation R 17-1, the term “accident condition” can be defined as any event that is opposite of normal train operations, such as derailment, impact, or leakage/seepage from a tank car or other type of railcar, which may cause an accident. We are aware that you collaborated with the FRA and other stakeholders to address the issue of seperation distances, but were not able to reach consensus on exactly what seperation distances are needed. This is why we asked that 49 CFR 174.85 be modified so that all trains have a minimum of five nonplacarded cars between any locomotive or occupied equipment and the nearest placarded car transporting hazardous materials, regardless of train length and consist. We note that you have made progress in your regulations regarding hazardous materials transport; however, more must be done to address separation distances to ensure train crews are protected during both normal operations and in accident conditions. Pending the results of your literature review and successful collaboration with the FRA to revise 49 CFR 174.85 to require that all trains have a minimum of five nonplacarded cars between any locomotive or occupied equipment and the nearest placarded car transporting hazardous materials, Safety Recommendations R-17-1 and -2 are classified OPEN--ACCEPTABLE RESPONSE.

From: PHMSA
To: NTSB
Date: 6/7/2017
Response: -From Howard W. McMillan, Acting Deputy Administrator: The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) concurs with the recommendation and will evaluate the risks posed to train crews and the parameters of separation distance between hazardous materials cars and occupied locomotives and equipment. PHMSA will initiate a literature review to identify gaps and changes in factors from previous and current studies, as well as a more in-depth analysis of quantitative and qualitative factors. To better determine the adequate separation distance, PHMSA respectfully requests further clarification of the term "accident conditions." Additionally, PHMSA and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) will consider alternate approaches to separation distance requirements, such as the impact of developing a performance-based standard relative to the measured distance from the nearest car containing a hazardous material, rather than a specified number of rail cars ("buffer cars"). As locomotives and rail cars often differ in length, an adequate separation distance can be achieved using fewer buffer cars, rather than a more prescriptive requirement specifying the number of buffer cars. PHMSA has a documented history of considering adequate separation distance in previous correspondence with NTSB in relation to Safety Recommendation R-08-13, which was closed March 9, 2017. Notably, PHMSA and FRA recently collaborated under the scope of the Rail Safety Advisory Committee Hazardous Materials Issues Working Group Task No. 15-04 to address the issue of separation distance. Ultimately, due to stakeholder disagreement and a lack of established incident data, the members did not meet a consensus. Moreover, PHMSA worked with Volpe, The National Transportation Systems Center (Volpe) in its review of rail accidents occurring between 2006 and 2015 where there was a release of hazardous materials near the head end of the train. The study found no reported crew injuries and therefore no injuries that were potentially preventable with additional buffer cars. Volpe determined that in the absence of an incident record, the safety impacts and cost-effectiveness of additional buffer cars would need to be argued qualitatively and/or subjected to more in-depth probabilistic modeling. Through further evaluation, PHMSA will consider additional factors subsequent to Volpe's review, including the safety impact of the final rule titled, "Hazardous Materials: Enhanced Tank Car Standards and Operational Controls for High-Hazard Flammable Trains" ([HM-251]; 80 FR 71952). PHMSA will work with FRA throughout this process and update NTSB accordingly.

From: NTSB
To: PHMSA
Date: 3/9/2017
Response: On February 7, 2017, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) adopted its report concerning the December 30, 2013, accident in which an eastbound BNSF Railway Company (BNSF) train with 104 tank cars loaded with petroleum crude oil struck a car that had fouled the eastbound track when a westbound BNSF train derailed 13 cars loaded with grain.1 Additional information about this accident and the resulting recommendations may be found in the report of the investigation, which can be accessed at our website (NTSB website) under report number RAB-17/03. As a result of this investigation, we reclassified three safety recommendations to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and one to the Federal Railroad Administration, and we issued three new recommendations, including one to the Federal Railroad Administration and two to PHMSA.