Hazardous Materials & Rail Safety

From the chlorine used to purify drinking water to the chemicals used in fertilizers, railroads provide a safe solution for moving the hazardous materials (hazmat) essential to daily life.

More than 99.9% of all hazmat moved by rail reaches its destination without a release caused by a train accident, making rail a responsible choice when compared with other modes, like trucks.

Railroads recognize the responsibility of moving hazmat and strive to safely and securely deliver the freight entrusted to them each day. Working with customers, suppliers, communities and federal regulators — like the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) — railroads' approach to hazmat safety is both exacting and all-encompassing. These efforts include rigorous design standards for rail cars carrying hazmat, specialized mobile apps that equip first responders with critical safety information, and a software system jointly developed by the industry and the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to evaluate and determine the safest, most secure rail routes to move highly hazardous materials. These efforts — coupled with the rail industry's ongoing commitment to infrastructure investment, technology deployment, rigorous employee training, improved operating practices and community safety efforts — have lowered hazmat accident rates by 78% since 2000 to the lowest ever based on preliminary Bureau of Explosives data.

Texas' freight railroads operate a safe freight rail network thanks to its focus on continual improvement. While railroads' excellent safety record stands on its own, the industry continues to work toward the ultimate goal of an accident-free future. Freight rail's approach includes:

• Tech-Enabled Inspections: Freight railroads are superior to other transportation modes partly because of sustained, robust investment in infrastructure, equipment and technology. These investments include powerful new inspection technologies that assess network health more accurately than ever and improve maintenance planning.

• Specialized Equipment: America's freight railroads transport most hazmat using a fleet of specialized rail tank cars. Thanks to rail industry advocacy, in 2015, USDOT released regulations requiring new, tougher tank car standards for certain types of hazmat, including crude oil. Older tank cars that do not meet new standards are being phased out. Railroads also proactively equip many trains carrying hazmat with equipment designed to enhance rail braking and minimize damage to rail cars in the event of an accident.

• Government Oversight: FRA inspectors regularly examine rail infrastructure to ensure federal safety standards compliance. The FRA recently decided to allow railroads to use ultrasonic inspection technology, augmented with global positioning system (GPS) technology, to inspect tracks using specialized vehicles that don't need to stop during inspections. This continuous rail inspection technology will allow railroads to test rail more frequently, identify and repair internal rail flaws before conditions degrade safety, and reduce freight and passenger train delays associated with routine track testing.

• Operational Modifications: U.S. Class I railroads use the Rail Corridor Risk Management System (RCRMS), a joint initiative between railroads and the government, to analyze and identify the safest and most secure routes for transporting highly hazardous materials. The model uses 27 risk factors — including hazmat volume, trip length and population density along the route — to assess rail routes' overall safety and security. 

With operations across the state, freight railroads focus strongly on preparedness and community engagement. Railroads prepare communities in the rare event of a rail accident and support them during and after the incident. These efforts include:

• First Responder Support: U.S. freight railroads train tens of thousands of first responders throughout the country each year, many at the industry's Security and Emergency Response Training Center (SERTC).

• Transparent Communications: Railroads actively collaborate with local officials on emergency response plans. Upon request, railroads also share information with state and local officials on the types of cargo moving through their communities to inform emergency response planning. In partnership with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the industry developed the AskRail app, which provides first responders across the rail network immediate access to accurate, timely data about what type of hazmat a rail car is carrying and how to respond to an incident safely.

• Emergency Response Teams: Railroads have 24/7 emergency response teams to assist local officials. Railroads also maintain networks of on-call hazmat response contractors and environmental consultants to provide additional assistance.

• Community Assistance: Railroads provide services (e.g., lodging, food) to those displaced by rail hazmat accidents. Railroads will often establish assistance centers and claims teams to assess and meet the needs of displaced community members.

Tank Cars