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The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), citing recent fiery train crashes, wants new regulations requiring that oil tank rail cars be replaced or at least modified to make them less susceptible to explosive train wrecks.
The Board recommended on April 6 that the cars be reinforced with more than just steel, as they are now, to make them less flammable. That might mean adding valves to tank cars to relieve internal pressure caused by the heat of a nearby tank car that may have caught fire during an accident.
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The NTSB also recommended using ceramic “thermal blankets” to encase the tank car, shielding it from nearby heat. These blankets are already used for tank cars carrying liquefied petroleum gas. And it suggests that if the US Department of Transportation believes that retrofitting would take too long, it should instead consider strict speed limits until all the retrofitting is complete.
Christopher Hart, the chairman of the NTSB, described the problem of an oil-train derailment or crash this way to The Associated Press: “Once one car is punctured and releases [a flammable fuel], if that product ignites and forms a pool fire, the pool fire causes other remaining cars that aren’t punctured to heat up and cause an explosion.”
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Today all US rail safety measures are voluntary. In 2011, the industry adopted its own rules obliging carriers to use stronger tank cars for transporting flammable fuels. But the two models of cars required, DOT-111 cars and CPC-1232 cars, have burst open in at least four accidents in the past year.
So far in 2015, they have been included in a derailment in Illinois in March and a second in West Virginia in February. The worst such accident in recent years involved a runaway oil train that crashed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Ontario, in 2013, killing 47 people.
These accidents caused enormous explosions and oil spills, the NTSB said, emphasizing what the Board called “significant vulnerability” to fires even in tank cars of the latest, safest designs.
New federal regulations to strengthen the tank cars, replacing the industry’s voluntary standard, are being discussed within the Obama administration and are not expected to be adopted for two more years. One popular suggestion in Washington is simply to strengthen the cars’ steel housings. Whatever measure is adopted, however, it would several more years before all the new cars are in service.
The NTSB, however, called for stronger measures to be applied sooner, including the pressure-relief valves and the ceramic blankets. “We can’t wait a decade for safer rail cars,” Hart said. “The industry needs to make this issue a priority and expedite the safety enhancements. Otherwise we continue to put our communities at risk.”
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The US government says it anticipates that trains carrying cargoes of flammable fuels will derail an average of 10 times each year between now and 2035, killing hundreds of people and causing damage estimated at more than $4 billion if these accidents occur in or near highly populated areas of the United States.
For now, though, such shipments are beginning to decline, not only because plunging prices for crude have slowed down US oil production, but also because of the very safety problems cited by the NTSB.
Fuel shipments by rail peaked in the autumn of 2014, the Association of American Railroads says, and then began to decline. Last month such traffic was down by 7 percent compared with March 2014.
By Andy Tully Of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com