“We will not remove any unsafe oil rail cars from service.” That was the upshot of oil industry testimony at a recent rail safety hearing before the US Senate.

To be fair, that isn’t a direct quote. But it is a direct consequence of the math.

Under questioning from Senators about the wisdom of continuing to use older unsafe tank cars to haul crude oil—especially the very volatile crude coming out of North Dakota—the American Petroleum Institute representative testified that tank cars built to the newer standard, called “CPC 1232” would make up “sixty percent [of the oil tank car fleet] by the end of 2015.” It’s a good sound bite—and it certainly reinforces industry PR that everyone is busy making oil-by-rail as safe as possible—but it is also misleading. Dangerously so.

In fact, on the very same day as the Senate hearing, another oil industry representative provided a more complete picture to the US Surface Transportation Board’s (STB) rail energy transportation advisory committee.

Crude oil tank car chart

Image by US Surface Transportation Board

The oil industry presentation for the STB provided detailed information on the composition of the nation’s oil tank car fleet—the number of newer-standard tank cars alongside the total number of tank cars that were rolling at the end of 2013 and that are projected to be on the rails by 2015. A bit of simple arithmetic yields the number of legacy tank cars—the outdated and obviously unsafe ones—that the industry expects to be in service hauling crude oil.

Composition of US Crude Oil Rail Car Fleet, End 2013 to End 2015

What the oil industry is showing here, but not necessarily talking about, is that they expect a surge in shipments of volatile shale oil from North Dakota and other areas. More precisely, they believe that they will need 84 percent more tank cars by the end of 2015 to haul the coming flood of crude oil. And to accommodate all that oil, the industry expects to keep every one of the 25,806 legacy DOT-111 oil tank cars in service through at least the end of 2015. (The tank car numbers here are consistent with data the industry has provided in other documents. See for example, Table 2 in the Rail Safety Institute’s written testimony on tank car standards recently submitted to the federal government.)

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  • In short, according to the oil industry’s own numbers, they will not retire any unsafe older crude oil rail cars in the near future. That makes for a different sound bite, doesn’t it?

    The percentage of newer tank cars in the overall fleet is irrelevant until it starts to approach 100 percent because it does nothing to reduce the chances of an older tank car blowing up. Worse yet, the presence of older tank cars actually renders the newer tank cars unsafe too. According to federal investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board, the “safety benefits [are] not realized if old and new tank cars are commingled,” as they inevitably will be.

    There is an alternative. Instead of exposing communities to the ongoing threat of unsafe oil trains, we could choose to ship crude only in safer new-model tank cars—even if it means leaving some of our newfound oil reserves in the ground.

    Postscript. In this article we refer to the CPC 1232 standard for rail cars as better than what was on the books previously. That’s true, but even these newer tank cars are seriously flawed. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is not convinced that they “offer significant safety improvements.” They also still have bottom outlet valves, “which have been prone to failure in derailment accidents.” And as we pointed out, the “safety benefits [are] not realized if old and new tank cars are commingled.”