21 May 2008 17:14 [Source: ICB]
A host of advanced features will protect the contents of the Next Generation Rail Tank Car
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Mickey McCarter/Washington DC
IN JANUARY 2005, a train derailed near Graniteville, South Carolina, US, and one of the three cars containing chlorine began to leak. By the end of the day, the poisonous gas had killed eight people, made about 250 more sick, and forced the evacuation of about 5,400 more.
Dow Chemical was not involved in the incident. But the company, one of largest chemical producers in the US, and Union Pacific, the nation's largest rail carrier, are working hard to prevent a repeat of such an incident. In 2006, Dow teamed up with Chicago-based tank car manufacturer Union Tank Car in an initiative called the Next Generation Rail Tank Car Project, which is now on track to deliver a prototype for testing in the fourth quarter of 2008.
The Next Generation Rail Tank Car Project is being conducted within the framework of Responsible Care, the chemical industry's voluntary effort to improve the health, safety and environmental performance of its assets, says Henry Ward, director of transportation safety and security at Dow.
"Rail transportation of chemicals is critical to the long-term sustainability of our businesses in North America, so an area of focus has been the continuous improvement of our rail safety and security programs, practices and performance," says Ward. "That includes a series of eight initiatives we are implementing in partnership with Union Pacific Railroad, including the Next Generation Rail Tank Car Project, improved tracking of rail shipments using GPS and sensor technologies, and improved training for community emergency responders along chemical transportation routes."
The companies intend to exceed US federal safety and security standards prescribed with the Next Generation Rail Tank Car, which promises crumple zones and energy-absorbing materials to cushion tank car impact during an accident, as well as stronger walls, removable valves, shock-absorbing support systems, improved couplers, and electronic air brakes - among other improvements.
"The Next Generation Rail Tank Car represents a step change in the safety and security performance of rail tank cars," Ward declares. "It will afford a four-to-six times improvement in performance when compared to current tank cars used for transporting highly hazardous materials (hazmat). By preventing the release of chemicals in rail transportation accidents, we protect the public and reduce our risks."
RFTrax, based in Sugar Land, Texas, provides wireless real-time monitors for rail cars. The Next Generation Rail Tank Cars will carry these Asset Command Units (ACUs), as the company calls them, to track the status of the tank car and its payload.
The ACU is a box that measures about 6x4 inches (15x10cms) and sits on top of a rail car, says Tom Moccia, marketing director at RFTrax. It uses global positioning satellite (GPS) technology to track the rail car's position and sensors to detect how much chemical product is in a rail tank car. That information is transmitted to shippers several times a day by a secure, private network.
The ACU also uses a lithium ion battery that is recharged by solar energy.
"An issue with railcars is that they don't have any power coming from the engine, so power management is a very serious problem," Moccia explains. The solar-powered battery solves that problem, but both solar power and GPS require the ACU to remain exposed to the sky.
Sensors in the ACU determine where a chemical tank car should be relative to its actual location, whether the car's hatch is open or closed and whether the tank car has been emptied of its chemicals.
"In Dow's case, they are moving chlorine around, and that's a really nasty material. We know that the government is interested in toxic inhalant chemicals and knowing where these railcars are," Moccia says.
The ACUs have proven tough enough to withstand the rigors of use. RFTrax has deployed about 1,500 units to railcars, some of them tank cars for chemicals. Many of the units are on locomotives.
RFTrax offers the ACU with a companion device called an accelerometer, which analyzes any tampering with a rail car.
"It provides a three-axis analysis of what happens to the car," Moccia explains. "If the car is humped or bumped or moved from side to side or any damage occurs to the car, the shipper will know exactly what happened. Many times, these cars get hit and damaged. There's always a concern as to whose fault was it. Did the shipper do it? Was it a switcher? The railroad? The data is available now to determine exactly what happened in terms of the impact."
The US Federal Railroad Administration is working on rules that would require companies to build stronger rail tank cars to reduce safety, security and environmental concerns arising from the transport of hazardous chemicals, but the Next Generation Rail Tank Car Project will result in a tank car tougher than the new requirements, says Ward.
US rail companies circulate about 250,000 chemical cars, according to estimates from RFTrax, but only about 15,000-18,000 of those ship hazardous chemicals. Chemical companies must own or lease these cars as a means to ship their products around the country. Final government rules are likely to hold shippers like the chemical companies responsible for the safety and security of their cars, Moccia predicts.
Dow, Union Pacific, and Union Tank Car plan to put the next-generation cars into production in 2009 and begin using them in 2010.
The cars meet standards established by the US Department of Transportation for 105J500W class, weighing 90 tons (82 tonnes) and maintaining a high-pressure environment to contain chlorine.
The 2005 crash in Graniteville involved a 105J500W class car operated by Norfolk Southern. Two Norfolk Southern trains collided, and the ninth car of the 42-car train was punctured, releasing chlorine. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in its report on the accident reiterated its opinion that the Federal Railroad Administration should consider tougher crash test standards for cars carrying hazardous chemicals.
RULES UNDER REVIEW
"Chlorine tank cars such as the punctured ninth car are tested to a pressure of 500 psig [pounds/square inch gauge], compared to a test pressure of 300 psig for tank cars used to transport anhydrous ammonia and liquefied petroleum gas," the NTSB report read. "To be rated for the increased operating pressure, the tanks of chlorine tank cars must have greater tank wall thicknesses than tanks of the lower pressure cars. Because of the improved properties of normalized steel and the increased wall thickness, the punctured car was among the strongest tank cars currently in service.
"The Safety Board therefore concludes that, as shown in the Graniteville accident, even the strongest tank cars in service can be punctured in accidents involving trains operating at moderate speeds," the report added.
In response, the Federal Railroad Administration published a proposed rule for strengthening hazmat tank cars in the Federal Register on April 1. The agency is accepting comments on the rule up until June 2.
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