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Widely-Used Rail Car Noted for Unsafe Design Flaw

A recent report from the Associated Press has revealed some worrisome data regarding one of the nation’s most common types of rail tankers. An increase in the demand for ethanol, which is a highly-flammable fuel, has led to more tankers being put into service and an accompanying increase in the number of accidents. Many of these accidents also result in the release of dangerous chemicals, explosions, and even fires. According to AP, transportation officials were aware of the issues with the tanker’s design for the past two decades but declined to take it out of use.

The rail car, the so-called DOT-111, has been in heavy use on railroads around the U.S. for many years. The National Transportation Safety Board has brought to light several troubling factors in these accidents, which were reported as early as 1991 when the board released a safety study noting the problems. The tankers were found to be especially prone to puncture or tearing due to a thin steel shell, and the couplers at the ends can also tear off and potentially fly up when separated from between the cars. The AP, after analyzing over twenty years’ worth of data outlining federal rail accidents, found that the number of tankers breached increased from two between the years of 1990 and 2000 to 40 in the years since 2000.

It is this statistic that has prompted concern from several circles. Although the AP notes that the rate of high-risk crashes is still relatively low considering the total miles covered by tanker carrying hazmat shipments. As such, rail is still the safest method of transportation for such shipments. According to Patricia Reilly, the senior vice president of communications at the Association of American Railroads, safety is “the freight railroad industry’s number-one priority.” She also told the AP that railroads work with “experts and federal regulators” to develop standards for the hazmat rail cars.

Given the number of incidents stemming from the ethanol railway tankers since 1996, it seems urgent that regulators at least evaluate the possibility of changes to the existing cars. Although manufacturers of the tankers have committed to safety changes to ethanol tankers built after October 2011, this means that 30,000 to 45,000 tankers will not be affected by the upgrades. In March, the NTSB requested that higher standards be applied to all tankers. However, representatives for the railroad industry have maintained that risks have been overstated. With the amount of hazmat transports only expected to increase, it is imperative that this issue be considered going forward.

Common type of rail car has dangerous design flaw, The Associated Press, September 13, 2012