COVID-19 has seen a dramatic fall in fuel demand as fewer planes take to the skies and drivers keep their cars off the road. This knock-on effect has meant fuel storage tanks around the world are rapidly reaching capacity and has led to producers scrambling for places to store their excess production. Oil companies have been searching for alternative ways to store crude as traditional storage becomes more expensive and harder to find. One suggested method has been to store fuel in freight trains. However, the director of liquid operations at US-based Colonial Terminals Michael Mashburn, advises producers should proceed with caution. ‘It would be very costly storage first of all, but if everybody operates by stringent guidelines, then in theory, there shouldn’t be any significant risk increase.
However, one stationary storage tank is generally less risky than 200 mobile storage cars, as it’s at least 199 fewer closures and generally fewer opportunities for something to potentially go wrong,’ he explains. And stringent guidelines are something of which Mashburn is very familiar. Over the past 10 years he has been developing a detailed tank car inspection checklist to prepare tank rail car shipments to meet Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) as well as specific storage customer requirements.
REDUCING FATALITIES IN THE RAIL INDUSTRY
According to the FRA, the main causes for fatalities within the US rail industry are negligence, human error and reckless pedestrians or drivers. It is nearly impossible to eliminate all injuries from the industry, but with improved maintenance and more thorough inspections, the frequency of non-accident releases (NARs) can be significantly reduced. NAR is the technical name of an incident where product is released from a tank rail car without the railcar having been involved in an accident. By training operators to use a checklist like Colonial Terminals’ of what is needed to prepare a tank car for operations and transportation, Mashburn says terminals can minimise the number of safety risks. ‘Our operators use a 36-point inspection process and we are constantly evolving it based on information we receive from the FRA, our storage customers, as well as feedback from our own operations team,’ he explains.
All the tank cars moving through Colonial Terminals are inspected using this resource – both in a pre-loaded and postloaded condition – before they can be offered for transportation. Over the years, safety between shippers, carriers and tank car operators has improved as regulators have upped the ante on what is required for meeting their stringent standards. In the US alone there are more than 100 regulations determined by the FRA that operators of tank cars need to abide by.
MANWAY SAFETY OFTEN OVERLOOKED
Mashburn says one area often overlooked for an inspection is the manway (manhole) access areas, which provide entry points into the railcars. Specifically, the manway safety bolts. ‘The manway lid on a railcar normally has six to eight bolts with 1-2 of them being a safety bolt,’ he says. ‘The safety bolts are designed to protect the operator by preventing the lid from forcefully opening if the tank is under pressure.’
If these safety bolts are not properly assessed during an inspection, and the tank is under pressure, this could increase the risk to the next operator on the car. ‘This can be extremely dangerous,’ Mashburn says. ‘Especially if tanks’ cars are not checked for and relieved of pressure prior to opening the manway. FRA shares a story of an operator at another terminal who had his arm nearly removed from a manway lid flying open.’ He adds that it’s important to remember that like with most equipment, tank railcars are continuously moving and over time they will eventually need maintenance and upkeep to keep them safe. ‘This is why these inspections are so important – they’re needed to check that the safety and integrity of the tank railcar is being maintained.’
LOOKING BEYOND A SIMPLE INSPECTION
It’s important to assess the rail car in its entirety before it is put into transportation, and even though the FRA outlines a list of what it looks for, there are some grey areas on specifics. For instance, the Administration repeatedly mentions in its regulation 49.173.31(d) to be aware of “any other condition that would make the tank car unsafe for transportation”. ‘More than just the tank needs to be looked at with each inspection so operators should walk around the railcar before operation and inspect some of the mechanical aspects as well,’ Mashburn says. Ensuring all placards are in place with an adequate holder and making sure they’re readable, verifying brake pads, inspecting safety appliances such as ladders and platforms, checking the stub sills for cracks, and checking load limit capacities against load orders are just some of the important considerations.
COVID-19 CHANGING THE WAY WE WORK
Like with many industries, Colonial Terminals has had to re-think the way it operates in order to comply with social distancing measures during the COVID-19 outbreak. But thankfully, Mashburn says thus far, Colonial Terminals has been able to adjust. ‘Employees who can work from home, are, whereas most people working at the terminals can practice social distancing and better sanitisation practices, like frequent hand washing and increased cleaning of common areas. In fact, much of our normally worn PPE, such as gloves, goggles and chemical suits are serving a double duty to help to protect our team members from the virus,’ he says.
The company has also implemented simple measures to keep people apart, such as removing chairs from common areas and placing visual markers in the office and breakrooms of what 6 foot (1.8m) spacing looks like. ‘For example, with our operator loaded tank trucks, the drivers are attaching their paperwork to a clipboard at the load rack before vacating the area. The operator then enters the area and reviews it. When the truck is loaded, the process is done in reverse, sending the driver on their way without any close contact,’ Mashburn says.
Only time will tell how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect the future of the way we work, but Mashburn acknowledges there could be positives to come out of it. ‘I think a lot will change – a lot has already changed – not just in our industry but across the board. People are realising they can work from home and have meetings by teleconference, and it’ll be okay – we’re seeing a change in mentality,’ he says.
For more information: Michael Mashburn, Manager of, Liquid Operations at Colonial Terminals will be discussing this topic at this year’s ILTA Conference & Exhibition in Houston. His session on tank railcar inspection will include numerous examples of accept/ reject conditions as well as sharing the Colonial Terminals tank railcar inspection checklist with each attendee. Due to Covid-19 ILTA has been postponed until the 16-18th November 2020.
Find out more and register now at: www.ilta.org