The Fuse

Honeycomb Cargo Seeks Creative Solutions for Tank Car Safety

by Matt Piotrowski | October 13, 2015

Crude by rail has been in the spotlight over the last few years amid a large increase in domestic crude sources being shipped on railroads. Numerous accidents have occurred, putting safety in the spotlight. This has provided companies with opportunities to deal with the problem of tank car safety. Honeycomb Cargo (www.honeycombcargo.com) is now at the forefront of finding solutions to this pressing issue. Joe Parrilli, an executive at Honeycomb, speaks to The Fuse about rail safety and his company’s work in this area.

Given the number of incidents with rail shipments of hazardous materials, crude-by-rail safety is in the eye of both the public and regulators. Tell us about your technology and how it offers a fundamentally different solution than incremental improvements in tank car safety.

While the PHMSA and FRA May 1st final ruling that requires using thicker steel, adding more protection to valves and housings and enhancing the braking systems are all good ideas, they do not address the single-entity design flaw issue.

Honeycomb Cargo developed a revolutionary alternative to traditional tank cars—specifically DOT-111, CPC-1232 and DOT-117 tank cars. We believe these legacy tank cars all have a common 45-year-old inherent design flaw. They are all single-entity vessels and when they are breached the entire payload is prone to leakage and explosion. And while the PHMSA (US Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) and FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) May 1st final ruling that requires using thicker steel, adding more protection to valves and housings and enhancing the braking systems are all good ideas, they do not address the single-entity design flaw issue. Our solutions combine a distributed architecture with a shock absorbing element to deliver an order of magnitude improvement in safety, reliability and cost reduction. Three key elements form the foundation of our patent pending architecture:

  1. A distributed architecture that protects the cargo by containing and controlling it in vertical storage containers that will reach the same aggregate cargo capacity as legacy tank cars.
  1. A shock absorbing element that surrounds the vertical storage containers and not only absorbs the shock upon sudden impact but also gently moves the vertical storage containers away from the leading edge of the brute force often found in derailment, reduces sloshing & surging by producing a lower center of gravity and reduces the flash point of class three flammable liquids.
  1. An intermodal design that brings significant safety and economic benefits including reducing the expensive midstream tank-to-tank rail car loading process, enabling the crude or other hazardous material to avoid the switching in classification/hump yards that occurs in the current tank car process and leveraging an existing fleet of multi-purpose intermodal trucks and well cars that reduces the need to use expensive, single-purpose tanker trucks and tank cars.

The concept is really simple. If you separate and compartmentalize the cargo into smaller entities and then bundle them into scalable and intermodal cargo holds and surround them with the right shock absorbing element to protect the cargo from the leading edge of brute force often found in derailments, you will significantly reduce the exposure of the cargo and keep the content from leaking and/or exploding. As noted above, there are some less than obvious elements of our value proposition that are worth mentioning again. In particular, our architecture has the benefit of a lower center of gravity, which reduces the sloshing and surging that sometimes leads to tipping of tanker trucks and tanker rail cars. In addition, our shock absorbing element also reduces the flash point of class three flammable liquids, which helps to mitigate explosions from within the cargo holds caused by increased thermal expansion of the payload.

Does the honeycomb structure present any challenges for the speedy loading and unloading of tank cars?

We have developed a one-to-many loading system at the top of each intermodal container that uses the same industry standard valves and connectors that are currently found on existing tank cars and used in the crude-by-rail loading process today. We have also designed a many-to-one unloading system at the bottom of each intermodal container to enable both the loading and unloading processes to be seamless and transparent.

Our solutions are intermodal by design which gives them the advantage of being stacked on flat bed cars and intermodal well cars. So, we can stack our products to reach the same aggregate capacities of current tank cars. We can also take advantage of articulated cars to extend the length if needed to exceed capacities of traditional tank cars.

How are you testing your technology, and how does it react in the event of a derailment or other safety incident?

To date, all of our testing has been done internally. We have worked through several scenarios delivering pinpoint and widespread brute force to cargo holds and capturing the results in video. We have been in dialogue with the Federal Railroad Administration, the Surface Transportation Board, and the Association of American Railroads. We are scheduled to meet with each of them in November of this year and hope to make progress that will lead us to conduct detailed and accredited testing with the Transportation Technology Center Inc., a subsidiary of the Association of American Railroads of America.

What is the cost of a Honeycomb Cargo intermodal tanker compared to a DOT-111 or similar conventional tank car?

The net result is that the market price of these models will be significantly lower than the cost of a DOT-117 tank car.

The cost of our solutions depends on the model needed. We have established several models of various capacities and have worked out the details of our cost for each.  The net result is that the market price of these models will be significantly lower than the cost of a DOT-117 tank car. Our products are designed to ride on the existing infrastructure of intermodal trucks and rail cars. We are not building rail cars, we are building hazmat packaging and transport solutions that are intermodal, which means they can easily be moved from truck to rail (or to marine vessel or air cargo channels).

The salient point here is that tank cars are single-purpose by design and intermodal well cars are multi-purpose by design. In other words, you can carry a very limited type of commodity in a tank car (primarily a fluid commodity). So, the cost of a tank car can only be spread across a very narrow list of products. Intermodal well cars are designed to carry a much broader array of products – heavy machinery, automobiles, lumber, almost all categories of dry goods, electronics, and of course, hazardous material by way of Honeycomb Cargo products. So, the cost of an intermodal design can be spread across a much broader list of products. An intermodal design also enables a much more efficient logistical process – meaning fewer empty or deadhead trips from point to point.

Intermodal well cars are designed to carry a much broader array of products – heavy machinery, automobiles, lumber, almost all categories of dry goods, electronics, and of course, hazardous material.

The reduced cost of our solution gets better when you realize that the cost of intermodal infrastructure (trucks, well cars, etc.) can be shared across many different applications. Because they are multi-purpose by nature, we can leverage the shared cost of the wheels, breaks, etc. and just provide the cargo holds.  There is a very compelling reason to transport hazmat in an intermodal channel. Of course, there are intermodal hazmat containers in the market today. Many of them are single-entity, Intermediate Bulk Containers (IBCs) that hold hundreds of gallons of hazardous material and Intermodal Tanks that hold thousands of gallons of hazardous material like liquefied gases. These devices are built with heavy angle-iron framing to enable them to be moved within the existing intermodal infrastructure. However, these devices are also burdened with the same inherent design flaw that leaves the DOT-111, CPC-1232 and DOT-117 tank cars short: They are all single-entity vessels and when they are breached the entire payload is exposed. And, they are also all single-purpose by design—which increases the cost by limiting the application.

What inspired you to start this business, and what are your near-term goals?

The biggest problem in rail safety was the design of the tank car.

The inspiration for our design came like a bolt of lightning right around the time of the Galena, IL oil train derailment in March of 2015. At that time, I was transitioning from the downturn in the oil & gas market and returning to work in the energy consulting business again. As I was mapping out my career path, I continued to notice the high level of visibility of oil train derailments. Taking a closer look at the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster that took 47 lives in Quebec and others like it, I was reminded of the Air Florida 737 crash into the Potomac River in 1982 that we watched on the nightly news. I remembered seeing people struggling in the cold water and rescue teams trying to save them. And I recalled a woman trying desperately to hang on to a life preserver. By the time they reached her, hypothermia had set in and she was not able to hang on. She submerged into the water and drowned. Sometime soon after, I recall a report of a man who watched the same horrific events on his television and decided that he would invent a better life preserver. It was an outside of the box effort to eliminate the design flaw of legacy life preservers.

Needless to say, I was impressed with his ingenuity back then and it served me well when trying to address the crude-by-rail and other hazmat transport problems occurring today. So, I tried to think like he did, objectively and without bias about what the industry does. Then it hit me, the biggest problem was the design of the tank car. And like the man improving the life preserver to do what it’s intended to do—save lives—I have embarked upon a plan to create a safer and more reliable hazmat transport architecture.

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