Safety is Everyone's Business

Below is an editorial that appeared in the May 2015 issue of Railway Age Magazine. It was written by James Hall, the former Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and sponsored by Greenbrier as part of the Safer Tank Cars Now campaign.

During my seven years as Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, I saw the devastation caused by failures in railroad tank car design. I saw citizens evacuated from their homes to flee the effects of poisonous fumes, or communities nearly destroyed by explosion and fire. In my hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn., I witnessed the city’s water supply contaminated by leaking product from a damaged tank car.

The problem has not gone away. In fact, it has become more acute. It isn’t that tank car breaches happen that often. It is that when they do the consequences can be catastrophic. This was most dramatically illustrated two years ago when the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic was devastated after a runaway crude oil train derailed, killing 47 people.

Although I’ve left the NTSB, I’ve not stopped working tirelessly for transportation safety. That is why I am proud to be working with the men and women of The Greenbrier Companies to achieve our shared goal of Safer Tank Cars Now. As one of America’s leading railcar manufacturers, Greenbrier has stepped to the front to lead the tank car industry toward safer design standards.

It is not surprising that Greenbrier’s assertive position can be controversial and even unpopular. But what I saw in my years at the NTSB is that those companies that do not emphasize safety are the ones more than likely to see their own safety performance suffer.

With increased volumes of flammable and hazardous materials being transported by rail, the stakes are much higher than they ever were, even compared to just a decade ago. Yet, tank car designs carrying these commodities have not meaningfully improved since the past century. They go back to the 1960s and 70s. Tank car standards are badly out of date with modern operating realities, and need to be upgraded. The governments of Canada and the United States need to do something now. Recently my former agency, the NTSB, issued urgent safety recommendations to upgrade construction standards.

The Department of Transportation is currently considering several options it proposed last year. It isn’t clear what the final regulations from either country will look like. For new cars, we expect adoption of the stronger, jacketed, insulated 9/16-inch steel thickness car with full-height head shields and improved rollover protection. The good news is that this isn’t some fanciful Tank Car of the Future; Greenbrier is building such cars right now. However, phase-out dates for older cars and retrofit standards are less certain, but must occur with due haste.

Greenbrier will benefit from increased tank car production and retrofit activity, but I am convinced its leadership in this area is not driven by profits. I believe Greenbrier is in this fight based on sound engineering principles, and in recognition of a changed railroad operating profile. We need to remove substandard rail tank cars from our communities, and I ask the rest of the tank car manufacturing industry, the railroad industry and government regulators to join us in ensuring we get Safer Tank Cars Now.

Update: The final tank car regulations that were issued by the Department of Transportation on May 1st 2015 were largely in line with James Hall’s comments above and Greenbrier’s Tank Car of the Future design. See Greenbrier’s response to the new rules, and learn more about their impact in the video below:



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