HM-251 FAST Act: A Comprehensive Overview of Rail Safety Regulations and Deadlines

Sean McCabe
Sean McCabe
August 29, 2023

Since its inception, the railroad industry has been the focus of countless pieces of state and federal legislation. Many have measurably improved safety and decreased risks to the environment and public health. Some of these initiatives have been driven by questionable political and financial motives, as well as lobbying by special interest groups. And some were undoubtedly a combination of the two.

Salco Products understands the impact this ever-changing web of regulations and mandates can have on railroad companies and the suppliers and supporting businesses keeping them on track. Salco’s Regulatory Compliance Group has the experience and up to date knowledge to ensure your equipment and processes are fully compliant with all applicable requirements.

HM-251 FAST Act: A Comprehensive Overview of Rail Safety Regulations and Deadlines

The HM-251 FAST Act (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act) was enacted in 2015 to address a range of transportation-related issues, including rail safety. One of the primary concerns addressed by the legislation was the safety of transporting hazardous materials, particularly flammable liquids like crude oil and ethanol, by rail.

In this article, we will take a look at the reasons behind the change in regulations, the specific measures being implemented, and the deadlines for railroads and tanker car owners to upgrade, retrofit, or replace their fleet to be in compliance with the FAST Act.

Reasons Behind the Change in Regulations

The increase in the production and transportation of crude oil and ethanol in North America has led to a rise in the number of tanker cars carrying these hazardous materials across the continent. This increase in rail traffic has increased the overall probability of derailments, spills, and explosions.

Additionally, several high-profile accidents in recent years have exposed the vulnerabilities of the existing tanker car fleet and the need for improved safety measures.

Specific Measures Being Implemented

The HM-251 FAST Act introduced new regulations to enhance the safety of rail transportation of flammable liquids, including:

New Tank Car Standards: The new standard for tank cars, known as DOT-117, are designed with thicker shells, better thermal protection, and improvements to top and bottom fixtures, reducing the likelihood of punctures or leaks in the event an accident. Existing DOT-111 and CPC-1232 tank cars must be retrofitted to meet the DOT-117R standard or replaced with new DOT-117 tank cars.

Enhanced Braking Systems: The new rules require the installation of electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) braking systems on trains transporting hazardous materials. ECP brakes provide faster and more uniform braking, reducing the risk of derailments and accidents.

Reduced Operating Speeds: Trains carrying large volumes of flammable liquids must adhere to reduced speeds in high-threat urban areas and areas with a population of 100,000 or more people. Improved Rail Routing: Railroads are required to perform comprehensive risk assessments and identify the safest routes for transporting hazardous materials, taking into account factors such as population density, environmental sensitivity, and infrastructure quality.

Increased Inspections and Maintenance: The HM-251 FAST Act mandates more frequent inspections and better maintenance practices for both tracks and tanker cars, ensuring that potential issues are identified and addressed before they can lead to accidents.

Enhanced Emergency Response: Railroads are required to develop and implement comprehensive emergency response plans to minimize the impact of potential incidents involving hazardous materials. This includes providing training and resources for local emergency responders, as well as ensuring clear communication and coordination between all relevant parties in the event of an emergency.

Deadlines for Railroads and Tanker Car Owners

The HM-251 FAST Act established a phased schedule for compliance, with deadlines for railroads and tanker car owners to upgrade, retrofit, or replace their fleets:

Upcoming Deadlines

May 1, 2025: All tank cars carrying Packing Group III materials must be retrofitted to meet DOT-117R standards or replaced with new DOT-117 tank cars.

Past Deadlines:

January 1, 2018: All newly manufactured tank cars transporting hazardous materials must meet the DOT-117 or DOT-117R standards.

July 1, 2020: All tank cars carrying Packing Group I (the highest hazard level) materials must be retrofitted to meet DOT-117R standards or replaced with new DOT-117 tank cars.

July 1, 2023: All tank cars carrying Packing Group II materials must be retrofitted to meet DOT-117R standards or replaced with new DOT-117 tank cars.

Fines for Non-Compliance

The number of fines for non-compliant tank cars can vary depending on the specific circumstances and the severity of the violation. According to the Federal Hazardous Material Transportation Law (49 U.S.C. § 5123), civil penalties for violations of hazardous materials transportation regulations can range from a minimum of $450 per violation to a maximum of $81,993 per violation (as of 2020). In the case of violations that result in death, serious illness, severe injury, or substantial property damage, the maximum civil penalty can be as high as $191,316 per violation. It is important to note that these figures represent the general penalty ranges for violations of hazardous materials transportation regulations and are subject to change due to inflation adjustments or updates to the law. The actual fines imposed for non-compliant tank cars may vary depending on the specific circumstances, the degree of non-compliance, and the discretion of the enforcement agency. While the updated standards for hazmat tanker cars help ensure that they won’t spill their contents during a derailment, preventing derailments in the first place has proven to be more challenging. One of the proposed rule changes addressing this wider issue has been the subject of ongoing debate amongst politicians and stakeholders. I am referring of course to:

Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) Brakes

The Enhanced Braking Systems mentioned in the HM-251 FAST Act primarily refer to Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brakes on trains transporting hazardous materials. ECP brakes represent a significant advancement over the traditional air brake systems used in most trains.

In traditional air brake systems, the brake signal is transmitted sequentially from one car to another, leading to delayed and uneven application of brakes throughout the train. When brakes are applied unevenly; some cars may experience excessive pulling or compressing forces, leading to wheel or rail damage, and increasing the risk of derailments.

By contrast, ECP systems transmit the braking command instantaneously to all cars, resulting in more uniform and synchronized braking, The system also provides real-time data on the performance and status of the brakes, allowing operators to identify and address potential issues more efficiently.

The cost of upgrading a single car to ECP brakes can range from $8,000 to $12,000, while the cost of implementing the system for an entire train can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars. Also, it is important to note that this figure doesn’t include costs associated with training or maintenance on the equipment.

The ECP brake requirement has been subject to some debate and controversy, with industry stakeholders citing the high costs of implementation and the potential for alternative braking technologies. Amid ongoing discussions and evaluations of the matter, future revisions or amendments to the regulation remain a possibility. Nevertheless, as of 2023, railroads transporting hazardous materials are still expected to comply with the Enhanced Braking Systems requirement outlined in the HM-251 FAST Act.

The HM-251 FAST Act is a significant step forward in improving the safety of rail transportation of hazardous materials. The new regulations will help to reduce the risk of derailments, spills, and explosions, and protect public safety.

Are you a railroad or tanker car owner? Do you need help complying with the HM-251 FAST Act? Contact Salco Products today. We have the experience and expertise to help you stay compliant and keep your operations safe.


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