In a topic we’ve discussed before, train safety experts are saying the recent deadly Canadian train derailment included tankers that are prone to rupturing in a crash. Both U.S. and Canadian regulators say that a portion of the investigation will involve examining the design of widely used tanker rail cars that were on the derailed train.
The crash, which happened on July 6, involved a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train hauling crude oil. The train derailed only 10 miles from the Maine border which led to a series of explosions that killed at least 13 people so far with dozens others still unaccounted for. Investigators say the train was carrying more than 70 carloads of crude oil from North Dakota at the time and that the resulting explosions were serious enough to force more than 2,000 people in neighboring towns to evacuate their homes.
The tanker car at issue, known as the DOT-111, is made by several different manufacturers and has been found to rupture in derailments more frequently than other models. In a 2012 warning letter, NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said that the DOT-111 tankers have been found in a number of train crash investigations to have a high incidence of failure. As a result, Hersman recommended that changes be made to the cars to increase the safety of the tankers in the event of a crash.
The NTSB said design flaws in the DOT-111 tanker involved in a deadly 2009 derailment in Illinois likely made the crash worse. The accident report said that other tank car models have thicker metal shells and stronger fittings that make them less likely to leak or rupture in the event of an accident. The NTSB has recommended thicker shells for the cars and has said that if such retrofits cannot be done, the DOT-111s should be phased out of use for transporting hazardous materials.
Sadly, the railroad industry has opposed any attempts by safety regulators with the NTSB to require retrofitting existing tankers to make leaks and fires less likely. The railroad companies have argued that such a retrofit would be prohibitively expensive given then vast number of such tankers in use today. Estimates currently suggest that about 69 percent of the U.S. rail tank car fleet is made up of DOT-111s. Canadian officials say the cars make up roughly the same percent of the Canadian tanker fleet.
We can only hope that government regulators are able to push the railroad industry to act to fix such a potentially dangerous problem before the next deadly derailment. Such an obvious hazard should not be allowed to continue endangering the lives of railroad workers and unsuspecting bystanders only because the railroad industry wants to avoid spending money.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau of Canada has ordered the retirement of all DOT-111 railcars by November 1st, 2017. The DOT-111 railcars were involved in the Lac-Mégantic tragedy three years ago. The new regulation applies to crude oil transport only, on both jacketed and non-jacketed cars. All other flammable materials can continue to use DOT-111s until 2025.