LNG Rail Tank Cars: The Few and the Unknown
| February 12, 2021
New questions have emerged about the availability, safety and risks associated with the specialized rail cars that would be the backbone of a plan to transport liquified natural gas by rail from Wyalusing, Pa., to Gibbstown, N.J., Delaware Currents has found.
Among the issues:
- The tankers specifically authorized to transport LNG, which would feature a thicker outer shell, do not now exist. Experts said there’s little interest among manufacturers to build the cars.
- Risk managers and regulators repeatedly have said that data assessing the safety of transporting LNG by rail do not exist because it’s never been done before.
“We don’t know what the hell we’re dealing with,” Fred Millar, an independent railway and hazardous materials transportation expert, said. “This is really new and really untested in our historical experience.”
- Current specialized cryogenic tankers that transport super-cooled liquids, known as DOT-113C120Wcars, would be nearly identical to the models permitted to carry LNG but those cars exist in numbers too few to support the Pennsylvania-to-New Jersey project and no one is manufacturing them anymore.
One expert likened finding replacement parts for those tankers to finding parts for a rare automobile.
- As robustly protective as the newly required tankers might be, they would be hard-pressed to guard against high-speed derailments, experts said.
Studies have also found that at even relatively low speeds, tankers sustained considerable damage, resulting in the release of their content in derailments. Though those incidents involved older, less-reinforced models, they still serve as a cautionary history.
Federal regulators issued a special permit to a New Fortress Energy subsidiary for LNG to be transported by rail from Pennsylvania to New Jersey in a robustly more protective tanker that would be known as a DOT-113C120W9.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, in issuing the permit, required an upgrade to the existing design of DOT-113C120W tankers, with the new ones requiring a thicker outer shell.
About 500 DOT-113 cars remain active in the United States, but of those, only 85 have the DOT-113C120 designation. At any given time,12 to 15 of them are out of service for maintenance, federal officials said.
The DOT-113C120 cars meet the requirements to transport ethylene refrigerated liquid, a cryogenic flammable similar to LNG, officials said. The remaining DOT-113 cars are designed to transport non-flammable cryogenic materials, such as argon and nitrogen.
None of the models required to carry LNG exist and would have to be manufactured from scratch. Further, the DOT-113 is “an expensive tank car to design with limited demand that is still unclear,” said Thomas P. Jackson, vice president of marketing for The Greenbrier Companies, one of the leading suppliers of equipment for freight rail services.
“No one is building this tank right now,” he said. “No current production plans or any units in backlog.”
Jackson said he had “some discussions” with New Fortress and offered guidance on lead times to design and build the DOT-113C120W9 tankers but indicated there was no actual formal order.
(One government document said the costs to build each tanker would be $650,000 to $750,000.)
He also said it was unclear whether the Wyalusing-to-Gibbstown project, which has drawn opposition from environmental and other groups, would move ahead under a Biden administration.
“The transportation risk of LNG in the U.S. is currently unknown.”— Exponent, risk assessment consultants
Nicole Brewin, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the Railway Supply Institute, a trade association, echoed Jackson’s assessment. She described the tankers as “a very niche part of the industry and not many people have invested in the development of the DOT-113 tank cars.”
Wendy J. Buckley, president and chief executive officer of Specialty Transportation and Regulatory Services, said in her 25 years of working in hazardous materials transportation, she’s only ever seen two DOT-113s in the field and was unaware of any new ones having been built in at least 15 years. She described securing parts for the DOT-113s as akin to finding the parts for a vintage car.
She said existing DOT-113C120W models could theoretically be retrofitted with a thicker outer shell but that it would probably be prohibitively expensive. Jackson added that steel prices have tripled in the last few months.
Chart Industries, a maker of specialized LNG tank cars, declined to comment. Other manufacturers did not respond to inquiries.
How the lack of a marketplace for LNG tankers might affect the New Fortress project is unknown. Also unclear is whether it might prompt the company to transport more LNG by highway, which studies have said would be more dangerous. A company spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Exponent, a consulting company hired by New Fortress to conduct a risk assessment, broadly downplayed safety concerns of transporting LNG by rail while simultaneously acknowledging much was unknown.
“The public perception of LNG risks is inexplicably misaligned with the risks compared to other common flammable commodities,” it wrote in 2015, adding: “LPG [Liquified Petroleum Gas] has a long history of transport as a commodity in the U.S., and the transportation risk is broadly accepted by society. The transportation risk of LNG [Liquified Natural Gas] in the U.S. is currently unknown.”
It said the breach of a cryogenic tank car “will typically result in the loss of the entire volume of material in the tank car” and that “despite the low probability, rail incidents can be high-consequence events” given the quantity of hazardous materials being transported.
The rail industry boasts that “more than 99.99 percent of all hazmat moved by rail reaches its destination without a release caused by a train accident.” And the PHMSA noted that the DOT-113 tank cars have a “demonstrated safety record of over 50 years.”
“More than 100,000 rail shipments of cryogenic material in DOT-113 tank cars have taken place with no reported fatalities or serious injuries occurring due to a train-accident caused release of product,” it said.
“We don’t know what the hell we’re dealing with.”— Fred Millar, independent railway and hazardous materials transportation expert
In a 2019 report, the PHMSA said 73 incidents involving cryogenic ethylene tank cars between 1977 and 2015 were identified, with only five being labeled serious.
But Earthjustice, which opposes the project, questioned the suitability of the tankers, noting that of three derailments of the DOT-113C120 tank cars cited in a government assessment, “all three ended up either breaching or needing to be breached and losing their entire cargoes.”
“This represents 4.5 percent of the entire DOT-113C120 tank car fleet,” it said.
Buckley, the hazmat transportation expert, said trains in the past might have at most run one or two of the specialized tankers. New Fortress, though, is proposing unit trains – ones that transport a single commodity — of up to 100 such cars.
“I think the biggest risk is all of the unknowns,” she said. As for the risk assessments, Buckley said: “Truly, what they are doing is guessing. It’s a brand-new industry. It’s difficult to guess what is going to happen.”
Unsafe at any speed?
The biggest risk with LNG cars would be a catastrophic failure of all the tankers in a high-speed accident, Buckley said.
“If you get a train going off the rails and the bridge goes out, there’s not anything anybody can do about what’s going to happen next,” she said.
Opponents have pointed to the 2013 freight train disaster in Lac-Mégantic Quebec that killed 47 people. In that case, the train, which was going more than 65 m.p.h. on a tight curve, derailed and more than a million gallons of fuel spilled and exploded.
“There can be no rail car ever built that will withstand going 66 miles per hour into the side of a building,” Buckley said.
But it’s not just high-speed derailments that are a source of concern, warned Millar, the independent railway expert, who provided an affidavit in support of Earthjustice’s opposition to the special permit.
In an interview, Millar cited a comment made in 2014 by Karl Alexy, who is now associate administrator for railroad safety and chief safety officer at the Federal Railroad Administration: “When you begin to look at cars that are derailing at speeds of 30, 40 miles an hour, it’s very difficult, it’s a big ask, to expect that a tank car get hit and not be breached.”
While these other cars were of designs less protective than the DOT-113 models, the lessons are still instructive, Millar said.
“If you are sending unit trains of volatile gas at freight speed, you can’t build a train car that will withstand puncture at that speed,” he said.
Robert Chipkevich, a former head of the National Transportation Safety Board’s Hazardous Materials Accident Investigation Program for 20 years, testified in 2016 that “many of the catastrophic crude oil and ethanol train accidents between 2006 and 2015 were operating at speeds below maximum speeds” set by federal rules.
He added that 17 of 24 serious accidents he reviewed happened at speeds of 40 m.p.h. or less, and eight of them were at speeds of 25 m.p.h. or less.
Millar said trains even going at lower speeds were not immune from trouble: In December, a crude oil train in Custer, Wash., going 7 m.p.h. derailed, causing 10 cars to leave the tracks and five of them to burn.
The special permit issued for the New Fortress project limits train speeds to 50 m.p.h.
About the tankers
The existing DOT-113C120W tankers and new LNG cars feature tank-within-a-tank designs similar to a Thermos bottle. The outer tank is made of carbon steel, the inner one of stainless steel. Insulation of fiberglass or Perlite and a vacuum between the tanks keeps the cargo super-cooled to as low as 260 degrees below zero.
Regulators required the LNG tankers to have a minimum outer shell thickness of 9/16th of an inch – a little less than two iPhone X model phones stacked together. That’s an increase from 7/16th of an inch of existing models.Regulations require the internal shell to have a minimum thickness of 3/16th inch.
Those measurements might not sound like a lot but compared to other rail cars these tankers are quite robust, Buckley said.
The PHMSA noted that a crude oil tanker with a 9/16th of an inch outer shell that crashed last year in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan had “62 percent fewer shell punctures” compared to tankers with 7/16th of an inch outer shell carrying crude oil and ethanol that crashed in North Dakota and Ohio. None of the tankers involved were of the DOT-113 models.
“I think the biggest risk is all of the unknowns.”— Wendy J. Buckley, president and chief executive officer of Specialty Transportation and Regulatory Services
But an impact test conducted last year by the Federal Railroad Administration on a DOT-113 tanker with 9/16th of an inch outer shell that was purpose-built for the test showed it withstood a “ram car” weighing 297,000 pounds going 17.3 m.p.h. Neither the inner nor outer shell were torn, the test found.
This is in contrast to a previous similar test involving a DOT-113 tanker with 7/16th of an inch outer shell. In that case, the ram car was going 16.7 m.p.h. and both tanks were punctured, the FRA reported.
The agency said it plans two more tests using cryogenic liquid in the inner tank to understand how cryogenic conditions affect puncture behavior.
Still, upgraded protective cars are no guarantee against derailments.
A 2018 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said a review of federal data found that “that track, roadbed, and structure problems” were behind more than 44 percent of all reportable derailments from 2005-15.
It’s an issue not lost on Diane Ward, a resident of Bradford County, Pa., which is home to Wyalusing.
In comments filed in response to the special permit application, she raised concerns about flooding and how it might affect rails. There is “a real and growing probability of derailment of LNG tank cars,” she wrote, noting cars had derailed in 2019 along tracks the LNG trains would follow.
Pennsylvania recently announced that the Lehigh Railwaywhich would make up an important first leg of the journey from Wyalusing to transport LNG, will get $506,100 to replace approximately 4,900 rail ties as part of a rail freight improvement program.
In November, the R.J. Corman Railroad Group completed its purchase of the Lehigh Railway.
The new owner did not respond to a request for comment about the New Fortress project.