Four DOT Advisories on Hazmat Rail Accidents

Posted on 7/25/2023 by Roger Marks

Twenty-five freight train cars derailed in Montana on Friday, July 24, including one loaded with hazardous material (paint thinner). No one was injured and no hazardous material was released. 

The accident is the latest in a series of derailments involving hazardous materials that have drawn the attention of railroads, regulators, and chemical industry stakeholders and shippers in recent years. A few others include:

  • A widely publicized chemical release, fire, and explosion incident in East Palestine, Ohio involving vinyl chloride and other chemicals, 

  • A leak of liquid asphalt and petrochemicals from 31 derailed cars in North Dakota, and 

  • Several hazmat tank cars going off-track and exploding into flames in Iowa.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and PHMSA have each had a role in responding to and investigating recent train derailments involving hazardous materials. As part of that role, the agencies keep industry stakeholders (and the public) informed about the lessons learned from assessment of physical evidence, documents, electronically recorded data, etc.  

Four DOT Advisories on Hazmat Rail Accidents

DOT has issued a handful of Safety Advisory notices so far in 2023 to help railroad operators and employees, tank owners, shippers, and others to assess and mitigate risk based on the common traits and contributing factors of recent derailment incidents across several states.

FRA Safety Advisory 2023–01 (Detecting Hot Wheel Bearings)

Issued: March 3, 2023 
"Evaluation of Policies and Procedures Related to the Use of Hot Bearing Wayside Detectors" 

View: Safety Advisory 2023-01

FRA Safety Advisory 2023–1 addresses the detection and maintenance of overheated wheel bearings—a contributing factor to five derailments since 2021, including the accident and large chemical release in East Palestine, OH in February 2023

PHMSA and FRA Safety Advisory (Flammable Liquids by Rail)

Issued: March 22, 2023
"Safety Notice for DOT-111 Tank Cars in Flammable Liquid Service" 

View: Safety Advisory (PHMSA and FRA)

After the derailment and major hazardous materials disaster in East Palestine, OH on February 3 and several (less severe) incidents involving hazmat rail shipments in the months that followed, PHMSA and FRA together issued a Safety Advisory to alert and remind rail shipping stakeholders about concerns with DOT-111 tank cars. 

This hazmat safety advisory urges tank car owners and/or shippers to: 

  • Voluntarily replace their DOT-111 tank cars with “the newest, and safest, available tank car design authorized for flammable liquid service—the DOT-117 specification tank car.” 

  • Follow the requirements for high-hazard flammable trains (HHFTs) for trains carrying flammable liquids in DOT-111 tank cars, even if the train has fewer cars than an HHFT.*​​​​

Hazmat derailment east palestine ohio 2023 vinyl chloride release

FRA Safety Advisory 2023–2 (Hazmat Derailment Patterns) 

Issued: April 11, 2023
"Train Makeup and Operational Concerns" 

View: Safety Advisory 2023-02

In this notice, FRA describes six train derailments that share several “common characteristics and patterns.” The Advisory should assist rail carriers and shippers in evaluating and mitigating transportation risks. 

The common traits identified by FRA include the length of the train (all six derailments involved trains pulling 125 cars or more), use of Distributed Power Units (DPUs), and a train makeup of mixed freight. Five of the ten factors listed relate to hazardous materials in rail transportation. 

From FRA Safety Advisory 2023-2: 


6. Hazmat Cars: Five out of the six accident trains contained hazmat cars, highlighting the potential risks associated with transporting hazardous materials in long, complex consists.

7. Derailed Hazmat Cars: In three of the accidents, hazmat cars were derailed, increasing the risk of hazardous material release and environmental damage.

8. Hazmat Release: Three of the accidents resulted in the release of hazardous materials, posing a threat to public safety and the environment.

9. Evacuations: Two of the accidents led to evacuations of local populations due to the release of hazardous materials.

10. Key Trains: Three of the six accident trains were classified as Key Trains, which are trains with a higher level of potential risk due to the nature of the cargo they carry or their operational characteristics.

FRA Safety Advisory 2023-3 (Accident Mitigation and Train Length)

Issued: May 2, 2023

FRA Safety Advisory 2023-03 describes three derailments that occurred in 2022-23 and involved trains with more than 200 cars. Train handling and train makeup are believed to be a cause or contributing factor in all three incidents.  

From Advisory 2023–3: 

FRA is issuing this Safety Advisory to ensure railroads and railroad employees are aware of the potential complexities involved in the operation of longer trains, and appropriate actions are taken to address these complexities. This Safety Advisory also makes clear that train length is a critical factor to consider when building any train, just as consideration of a consist’s configuration is critical, as outlined in FRA Safety Advisory 2023-02.

Hazmat train cars derailed fire explosion 2023
When rail cars carrying flammable liquids and other hazardous materials derail, the results can be disastrous. .

Ship hazmat by rail? Lion's Hazmat Ground Shipper—Additional Rail Requirements Online Course expands on the hazardous materials professional's highway shipping knowledge and covers the unique rules for shipping hazmat by rail. US DOT requires function-specific training for all “hazmat employees.” Hazmat training must be repeated at least once every three years.

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Tags: east palestine, emergency response, hazardous materials, hazmat derailment, rail shipping

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