Old oil tanker cars, old regulations, new danger

The News TribuneApril 22, 2014 

Sen. Patty Murray speaks at an April 9 hearing on Capitol Hill on safety issues related to increasing rail transport of crude oil.

OLIVIER DOULIERY/MCT

Freight trains have an excellent overall safety record, which is why we don’t flee at the sight of them. But the growing numbers of oil trains rumbling through Washington ought to be making us nervous.

U.S. petroleum production – especially at the Bakken formation in North Dakota – has been expanding far more quickly than the nation’s pipeline capacity. As a result, the crude oil is getting carted across states by train and by truck. Let’s take a closer look at the tanker car that hauls much of that oil through Western Washington.

It’s called the DOT-111, a 1964 design. The Bakken oil that exploded catastrophically in Quebec last July, killing 47 people, was being carried in DOT-111 cars.

Five years ago, the National Transportation Safety Board investigated a low-speed train crash in Illinois in which 15 DOT-111 cars carrying fuel-grade ethanol went off the rails. Thirteen of the cars ruptured; the resulting explosion killed a motorist waiting at the crossing.

The NTSB did the math: 13 out of 15.

“This represents an overall failure rate of 87 percent,” it concluded, “and illustrates the continued inability of DOT-111 tank cars to withstand the forces of accidents, even when the train is traveling at 36 mph, as was the case in this accident.”

The NTSB noted that the basic DOT-111 lacks many puncture-resistance systems and has a thinner shell than cars designed to carry extremely hazardous liquids, such as chlorine. It reportedly is well-suited for things that don’t blow up, like corn syrup.

Bakken crude – as the Quebec disaster demonstrated – is turning out to be unexpectedly volatile and even explosive. It shouldn’t be in the older DOT-111 fleet – newer models are reputedly safer – if the cars aren’t retrofitted with heavier steel armor and other safety features.

The American petroleum boom caught regulators and railways with their pants down.

Railroad companies didn’t have enough modern, thick-walled tanker cars, so the DOT-111s were pressed into service. Spills and explosions have resulted. The U.S. Department of Transportation hasn’t come up with the tighter tank-car standards the new reality obviously demands.

Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray held a hearing that put Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on the hot seat. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine asked Foxx when the new oil train standards would be arriving.

“My target date is as soon as possible,” he said.

Four years ago – when North Dakota ran out of pipeline capacity – would have been better timing.

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