• Aakash Pahwa

Ensuring Safety at Railway Siding Operation of Oil Terminals

Updated: May 29, 2020

Managers responsible for managing operations at Storage Depots and Terminals of Petroleum product companies are often under time pressures while unloading railway rakes carrying flammable MS or HSD. The team at the storage depot has to unload the complete rake in a limited time allotted for the activity, failing which Oil Company has to pay demurrage charges to railways.

It is common knowledge and experience that when an activity has to be done in a given period of time, and there is a delay due to one or more of several possible factors, there is a tendency to bypass some essential processes, to make-up for the lost time. These processes which are which are necessary but are perceived to be unproductive by the operating managers, and hence ignored. Time or resources spent on ensuring safety is more often than not, a victim of this type of thinking. Safety is also compromised for want of appropriate equipment, tools or training of personnel while undertaking such operations.

Loading and unloading of railway rakes carrying highly flammable products MS or HSD is an operation which needs to be carried out safely and efficiently. There are several cases recorded over the years at different locations around the world, where the safety protocols have been violated leading to major fires and loss of lives and property.

This article below tries to identify and address some of the challenges and suggest solutions for managers tasked with the responsibility to carry out loading and unloading operations of flammable liquids efficiently without compromising on Safety.

Oil Depots and Terminals

Oil Depots and Terminal facilities play a critical role in the storage, transportation and distribution of Petrol, Diesel, Petroleum products and natural resources. Most Depots and Terminals work round the clock the service the demand of the end consumer.

There are over 320 Terminals and Depots across India and most of them are owned and operated by three major Oil Marketing Companies in India i.e. Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL), Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL) and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL). There are other Private and Semi-Private companies like Indian Oil Tanking Ltd, Reliance Industries Ltd, etc that also maintain and manage Oil Storage Depots.

Tank Wagons and Rake

A typical railway tank wagon carries approximately 65 KL (Kilo Litres) to 80 KL of MS (Motor Spirit) or HSD (High Speed Diesel). A rake usually comprises of approximately 50 Tank Wagons that come to a depot, which get unloaded and stored for further distribution to fuel pumps via Tanker Trucks.

These rakes are owned, maintained, and operated by Indian Railways. OMC schedule these trains and their frequency with Indian Railways depending on some of the following factors

  1. Distance of Depot from the Refinery

  2. Storage capacity of the Depot

  3. Area serviced by the Depot.

Railway Siding Operations

When it comes to working on a railway siding of an Oil Depot there is little information available on the standard operating procedure and the mandatory safety practices to be followed. We have visited many depots of all the OMC listed above and it is often observed that the safety practices and level of safety differ from depot to depot even if the Depot is of the same Oil Marketing company.

It is heavily dependent on the awareness and seriousness of the depot or safety manager of that depot.

There are two major factors that are important for any depot manager while working at an Oil Depot Railway Siding

  1. Speed and Efficiency

  2. Safety of Operation

Speed and Efficiency

When a rake comes to a Depot Railway siding, it is the responsibility of the OMC Depot manager to empty the rake within 7 to 9 hours depending on the number of wagons in a rake. If the complete rake is not emptied with the prescribed time, Oil companies are liable to demurrage charges to the Railways.

According to the Konkan Railway website the demurrage charges are ₹ 150 per wagon per hour. Therefore, if a rake with 48 BNTP rail wagon will have to pay ₹ 7200 per hour of delay. Unloading of these rakes is an ongoing process and in majority of the depots, this happens multiple times a week. ₹ 7200 per hour delay for a company can seem to be a small amount, but if this happens repeatedly and by many depots the monthly demurrage costs can become significant. Therefore, it is imperative that the speed of unloading is increased without compromising on safety to save on demurrage charges.

Let us look at the unloading process to understand how we can speed up the operations.

Unloading Process

Each Tank Wagon is a horizontally cylinder with two valves, one at the top and one at the bottom. The top valve is commonly referred as the Top Valve and the one at the bottom as Bottom Valve. Since these wagons are carrying flammable petroleum products, the top and bottom valve together provide additional safety. Only when both valves are open on then the product will flow form the outlet.

When a rake arrives at Oil Depot a team of operators lead by Operation and Safety manager perform an overall visual check of the rake. Once they are satisfied of the conditions, then the unloading process is started.

  1. First step to check if the bottom valve is in the closed position, if not then bottom valve is closed.

  2. Then a pipe or hose as per standard is connected wagon outlet pipe to the valve on the siding. This siding valve is connected to the central pipeline carrying the product from all the wagons to the storage terminal.

  3. After a positive connection, the Siding Valve is opened.

  4. Then Top Valve on the top of the wagon is opened slowly. Simultaneously, the bottom valve is opened slowly opened allowing the product to flow out of the wagon into the pipelines.

  5. This process is repeated till all the wagons in the rake are emptied.

Sounds Simple? Well it Isn’t.

Operators working on the siding face many challenges daily in doing their regular operations. Some common challenges are listed below.

  1. Missing Wheel on the Master Valve: Based on our discussion with our customers approximately ~50% of the Wagons come without the Wheel to open the master valve.

  2. Jammed Master Valve – Requiring very heavy torque.

  3. Worn out Wheel Square Nut.

  4. Jammed Bottom Valve.

These are just some of the challenges that are listed that operators faces in their daily operations in the siding area.

What makes this process more challenging is that the there are no standard tools available to operate these valves and to further make the situation critical, the wagon is filled with highly flammable petrochemical liquids.

Since all the valves are special and because of the poor maintenance of Wagons, the valves are not regularly maintained, and the “Missing” Wheels are not replaced.

A depot safety manager told us that “There are times that the Valve is so heavily jammed that we are not able to open the valve and therefore could not unload the product and sent the filled wagon back”

Battling with such challenges, depots have resorted to use of non-standard hand tools or “Jugaad tools” crudely fabricated either internally or from their local vendor. These non-standard tools are made from steel pipe and plates welded together to somehow complete the operations.

Here are some of the tools that we got to see made on site to solve this challenge.

These tools are not at all user friendly, and are extremely unsafe, but are being used, because without them it is impossible to complete the operation in time. These tools sometimes help solve the problem but fail on meeting the basic safety requirements. So SAFETY is a big casualty in using such fabricated contraptions made of steel.

Essential Safety Regulations

There are regulations published by OISD (Oil Industry Safety Directorate), PESO (Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organization) and other national and international regulatory bodies on the safety practices to be followed inside the depot or a terminal. Infact, OISD-STD-117 for Fire Protection Facilities for Petroleum Depots and Terminals mandates an Oil Depot to maintain an emergency safety non sparking hand tools kit among other safety and PPE equipment.

Read More about Emergency Safety Non-Sparking Tool Kit

But there is little information or guidance available on use of safety hand tools when working on a railway siding. As discussed in the above section that “Jugaad Tools” help speed up the process but fail on safety.

Tools (Standard or Non-Standard) made of steel can create spark during operation and cause catastrophic fire.

These are all the possible scenarios that a fire can be generated

  1. Tool thrown on track

  2. Tool thrown on stones

  3. Tool slips on the valve.

  4. Tool strikes the Wagon body.

  5. Two Steel tools strike with each other.

It is mandated that only certified Non-Sparking Safety Hand Tools be used while working around flammable liquids gases or vapours.

Read More about What are Non-Sparking Safety Tools

There are Non-Sparking Standard Safety tools available which are manufactured in alloy compositions, but there are no special Non-Sparking tools available to address the challenges mentioned above.