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Towns Nervously Await New Safety Rules for ‘The Soda Can’ of Rail Cars

Many freight trains roll through Barrington, Illinois (IL) each day. Many of them are hauling crude oil or fuel in old tank cars called DOT-111s. These are called by some people the ‘soda can’ of rail cars, because their shells are dangerously thin.

Many of these tank cars are laden with heavy tar sands crude from Canada. Some of them carry ethanol, and some also carry Bakken crude from North Dakota.

Many government officials in towns across Illinois and America worry that if there is a derailment, one of these cars could be ruptured. This could lead to a massive fire or explosion, as happened in Lac-Megantic, Quebec last year, when 47 people perished.

The center of that small US border town was obliterated by fire in July 2013, when an unattended train rolled down a hill and flew off the tracks. A staggering 60 of the DOT-111s on that train exploded. Since that disaster, many safety advocates have been pushing officials in the US and Canada to devise new safety standards for oil tank cars. They also want to see the old tank cars upgraded to make them more resistant to puncture.

But at this time, regulatory authorities in both countries have not moved yet, even though there have been three fiery derailments since Lac-Megantic. No one was injured in those crashes, fortunately. But many people worry, thinking it is just a matter of time before another oil tanker train explodes.

Oil tankers can be particularly dangerous in small towns; many of the trains pass through the town center, past houses, children and schools. A crash here could have terrible consequences.

The railway and rail car industry also does not like the wait for regulatory action. According to Tom Simpson, president of the Railway Supply Institute, regulatory uncertainty means that companies do not know how to build or repair their tank cars. This has an effect on the bottom line.

Simpson notes that in the last three years, the rail car industry has build tank cars to a stronger standard, making them harder to puncture in a wreck. But some advocates are pushing for even higher standards. There is great disagreement among railroads, manufacturers, oil companies and safety advocates about how robust this new standard should be.

But the Department of Transportation in Washington DC does not have a specific timeline in mind for the new regulations on tank car standards. Transportation Sec. Anthony Foxx said at a Senate hearing last week that his target date is ‘as soon as possible.’

So towns across America and industry wait. And worry. 

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