How Safe is that Passing Train?

The Dot-111 car, recognized by most for its soda can shape is one of the most commonly used rail tankers used for transporting hazardous gases such as ethanol and crude oil. Railroad transportation is one of the safest ways to transport these hazardous chemicals. However, these tankers and have been riding our rails for over twenty years with known design flaws that can cause the car to tear open if it is involved in an accident. The steel used to make the tanker is too thin to resist punctures if the car is involved in an accident. Also, the ends are vulnerable to tears from couplers that can fly up after ripping off between cars, and exposed fittings such as unloading valves on the top of the tanker can easily break if the tank is rolled over during a collision.

Two people have been killed and dozens have been injured since the discovery of the design flaw.

The rail and chemical industries took a step in the right direction when they began manufacturing all cars after October 2011 that will be used to transport ethanol and crude oil with thicker shells and shields to prevent punctures.

The National Transportation Safety Board wants to take it a step further. In March 2012, the Board asked that higher standards be applied to all tankers: Not just new ones. That means updating the standards of the 40,000 tankers that are already in use. They would either need to be retrofitted with the updated standards or get phased out. The rail and chemical industries have yet to act on these unfit tankers. Retrofitting all of the existing tankers could end up costing ethanol makers $1 billion.

The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration will have final word on the fate of the flawed oil tankers, but it could be years before a regulation is passed.

The number of severe crashes compared to the amount of miles covered by these tankers is relatively small and the rail industry has a strong hazmat shipping safety record. However, ethanol production has soared in recent years, which raises safety concerns over the potential of tragic explosions. Ethanol production has dramatically increased from 900 million gallons in 1990 to close to 14 billion last year. The industry has seen 40 serious accidents since 2000 due to breached tankers. In the 1990s there were only two. As the amount of ethanol being transported rises, the amount of accidents could reasonably be expected to rise. Unless every accident that happens involves a post October 2011 tanker, the risks for fatalities also increases.

In addition, ethanol is increasingly being shipped in higher densities using “virtual pipelines” meaning every car in the train carries the same product. In 2009, four years after carries started using the virtual pipelines, a train carrying more than 2 million gallons of ethanol derailed in Rockford Illinois and caused the nation’s single worse ethanol tanker accident. The fire could be seen from twenty miles away. One person was killed as a result of the explosion and 11 others were injured. These victims were not just the train’s crew members. The woman that was killed was an innocent bystander, traveling in the family vehicle with her husband and adult daughter. “Inadequate design” was ruled by the NTSB as the contributing factor to the accident’s severity.

The only way to prevent derailment disasters like this is to make sure all cars hauling hazardous materials meet industry safety standards. It’s not enough simply integrate newly manufactured tankers that are safe into the mix and allow defective cars to run the course of their natural lives. It could be decades before these defective tankers are retired. Leaving rail crewmen, and innocent by-standards at risk for another potential disaster like that one in Rockford for years to come.

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