BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Tank cars carrying oil or ethanol by rail urgently need to be retrofitted or replaced to make them more fire-resistant after a spate of explosive accidents in recent months revealed the shortcomings of voluntary industry standards, U.S. safety officials said Monday.
The National Transportation Safety Board issued a series of recommendations calling for tank cars to be fitted with protective systems better able to withstand fire than the bare steel construction now widely in use. It said a decade-long retrofit timeline that's been suggested by the tank car industry was too long to wait.
"The longer we wait, the more we expose the public to the problems of these cars that aren't especially robust," NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart told The Associated Press.
One alternative cited by the safety board would equip flammable liquids cars with ceramic "thermal blankets" that surround the tank and shield it from intense heat should a nearby car catch fire. Those blankets already are used for transporting liquefied petroleum gas.
Also recommended were relief valves that can prevent pressure from building inside tank cars as they heat up from nearby fires.
The industry in 2011 voluntarily adopted rules requiring sturdier tank cars for hauling flammable liquids such as oil and ethanol. But cars built to the new standard split open in at least four accidents during the past year, including oil trains that derailed and burned in West Virginia in February and Illinois last month.
The recommendations come as the Department of Transportation considers new rules to bolster tank car safety. Oil and ethanol train crashes have stirred widespread worry in the U.S. and Canada, where 47 people were killed when a runaway oil train crashed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec two years ago.
If the Transportation Department decides it would take too long to retrofit the existing fleet with new protective features, it should consider significant speed restrictions on trains as an interim measure, the NTSB said in its recommendations.
The volume of flammable liquids transported by rail has risen dramatically over the past decade, driven largely by the oil shale boom in North Dakota and Montana. Since 2006, the U.S. and Canada have seen at least 23 oil-train accidents and 33 ethanol train accidents involving a fire, derailment or significant amount of fuel spilled, according to federal accident records reviewed by the AP.
The fleet of oil and ethanol tank cars is projected to top 115,000 cars by the end of 2015.
Many are owned not by railroads but by the oil and ethanol producers that ship their product via rail. That's created friction between the energy and rail industries as each looks to the other to foot the bill for safety improvements.
The Association of American Railroads said in response to Monday's NTSB announcement that it supports aggressive steps to retrofit or replace the tank car fleet. "Every tank car moving crude oil today should be phased out or built to a higher standard," the group said in a statement.
The Railway Supply Institute, which represents tank car users and manufacturers, said companies already have spent more than $7 billion on voluntary upgrades.
Those companies are ready to do more, but it will take time, said the group's president, Tom Simpson.
Two Democratic lawmakers, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden and Rep. Peter DeFazio, both of Oregon, urged the Obama administration to move quickly on new rules for oil trains. Regulators need to "get these cars upgraded quickly, or get them off the tracks completely," Wyden said.
A spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute said the organization supports a "science-based" approach to safety that includes track maintenance and repairs in addition to tank car upgrades.
To get to refineries on the East and West coasts and the Gulf of Mexico, oil shipments travel through more than 400 counties, including major metropolitan areas such as Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, Newark and dozens of other cities.
Railroads hauled 493,126 tank cars of crude oil last year, up from just 9,500 cars in 2008 before the boom took off in the Bakken region of North Dakota, Montana and Alberta. Each holds about 30,000 gallons of fuel.