Rail industry endorses safety improvements for cars carrying crude

McClatchy Washington BureauNovember 14, 2013 

Empty tank cars move through Newark, Del., on their way back to the Bakken oilfield in North Dakota.


Moving to address growing safety concerns around the transport of crude oil, ethanol and other flammable liquids by rail, groups representing large and small railroads Thursday called for safety improvements to tank cars.

The move by the Association of American Railroads and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association comes four months after the explosive derailment of a runaway crude oil train killed 47 people in Quebec, and a week after a similar train derailed and caught fire in Alabama, though with no injuries or fatalities.

"We believe it's time for a thorough review of the U.S. tank car fleet that moves flammable liquids, particularly considering the recent increase in crude oil traffic," said Ed Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, which represents the nation's largest rail carriers.

The Quebec tragedy and the Alabama incident both magnified concerns from local officials to environmental groups to members of Congress about the rapid increase in shipment of crude oil by rail from the booming Bakken shale field of North Dakota and the tank cars that haul it.

The industry groups recommended Thursday that the U.S. Department of Transportation require tank car manufacturers to phase out or retrofit tens of thousands of vessels long known to be vulnerable to breach in the case of a derailment.

There are about 78,000 tank cars involved in the transport of flammable liquids that need to be retrofitted with thicker shells, puncture shields and thermal insulation, or replaced with newer cars that meet the higher standard, the groups said.

Most of these cars are the DOT-111 type, which federal safety regulators have known for decades lacked adequate protections against punctures and intense heat.

The groups also called for additional upgrades to 14,000 newer tank cars that had been built to a higher safety standard.

Thursday's announcement is a turnabout for the industry, which has previously resisted the expense, estimated at more than $1 billion, of making modifications to the nation's tank car fleet. Additionally, the burden of the retrofit wouldn't fall on the railroads themselves, which in most cases don't own the tank cars but lease them from other owners.

However, hauling crude has become profitable for railroads, especially as coal shipments have declined in recent years. If they didn't propose on their own to improve the safety of crude oil shipments, it's possible that federal regulators and lawmakers in Congress would force them to make changes.

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